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Moral minority
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, September 17, 2011

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last year
at talks aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process. Picture: AFP Source: AFP

DURING a quiet Sunday walk around an archeological site in the backblocks of the West Bank, we spot four Israeli soldiers under a tree. They become alert when they see us coming over a rise, holding their guns at the ready, but the presence of five children appears to make them relax. One, however, insists we cannot take photographs, but his commander corrects him: "Take whatever photographs you want," he says. "Where you from ?" The first soldier doesn't like being overruled. He charges at my wife when he sees her raise her camera, and his commander rushes in to stand between them.

The West Bank today is an unpredictable and volatile place. There is also little apparent accountability. The soldier's commander says it was not acceptable behaviour but won't give us his name or that of the soldier. The soldiers are anonymous, wearing neither their names nor identifying numbers on their sleeves. As we walk away we hear them shouting at each other.

The incident last weekend, in the biblical village of Sebastia, highlights the tensions under Israel's occupation of the West Bank, also known as the Palestinian territories.

This biblical village of Sebaste is in an area anciently known as Samaria. Sebaste is in fact the site for the city of Samaria, 12 km northwest of Nablus. And at the entrance of the modern city of Nablus is Jacob's Well, where Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, 63 km north of Jerusalem.

Next week, how the West Bank works will be the focus of international attention as 193 countries vote on whether to grant membership of the UN to "Palestine". Delegates to the UN will focus on the status of the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank who, ultimately, are under Israeli military rule. Between 122 and 140 of the countries in the UN General Assembly are expected to vote in favour of Palestinian membership.

Inside Israel, the vote has reinvigorated the debate about what benefits Israelis gain from the occupation and the price they pay in terms of resources and reputation. Privately, Israeli officials admit they are extremely nervous; they say the vote could mean, for example, that the UN will take the view that one member of the UN, Israel, is occupying another member, and that Palestinians may then use their subsequent membership of UN tribunals to target Israelis.

In the lead-up to the vote, the Israeli Defence Forces is giving additional guns, tear gas and training to the estimated 350,000 Jewish settlers. Settlers are already heavily armed; the IDF has a policy under which if a settler believes they may be threatened, the IDF will give them weapons and training. The potential for catastrophe is obvious.

Israel's "settlement enterprise" began after it captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. Some Israelis believe the country now pays too high a price in terms of damage to its international reputation and resources. Under international law, Israel's settlements are held to be illegal. The Fourth Geneva Convention states: "The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Israel gives substantial financial incentives for people to move into the Palestinian territories: for example, while only 5 per cent of Israelis live in settlements, they receive 15 per cent of the housing budget. But there is growing concern within Israel that the settlements may be getting out of control. Some settlers practise a "price tag" policy: if the Israeli government does something they do not like, such as trying to close an illegal outpost, they in turn punish Palestinians, by poisoning or burning olive trees, desecrating mosques or attacking cars. Some have now extended the policy to the IDF. In July, settlers surrounded the car of a senior commander, attacked it and called him a traitor because he tried to close an outpost. This week, others broke into an army base and smashed 13 vehicles. While settlers had previously fire-bombed and burned army vehicles, this was the first time a military base was breached.

Last Sunday night settlers entered the Jerusalem apartment building of an official from Peace Now, which monitors settlements, and spray-painted her door and stairwell with "price tag". Peace Now's Yariv Oppenheimer responded: "The term 'price tag' must be erased from the lexicon and replaced with 'Jewish terrorism'."

Israel's top-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reported that at the same time in Palestinian villages cars were set ablaze, a water-tanker destroyed, "revenge against the Arabs" written and Stars of David drawn. The influential Haaretz newspaper also reported that Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet believes right-wing Jewish extremists had moved from "spontaneous acts against Arabs" to terrorist activity.

But even in this climate, settlers are being given more weapons and powers. Israeli authorities have just given a legal opinion to settlers: "Those authorised to perform guard duty in Judea and Samaria are permitted to open fire against unarmed demonstrators who are threatening to infiltrate a settlement, if such an infiltration, under the circumstances, presents in the guard's opinion an immediate and real life threatening danger."

While some characterise alarm about Israel's direction as anti-Semitic or as attempts to "de-legitimise" Israel, many of the warnings come from within the Israeli establishment. The former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, has warned of the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may attack Iran. He said he was going public because while he, security service Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and Israeli Defence Forces chief Gabi Ashkenazi — all now retired — were in office they could block "any dangerous adventure". "Now I am afraid there is no-one to stop Bibi [Netanyahu] and [Defence Minister Ehud] Barak," he said.

Two former heads of Shin Bet have also joined the Israeli Peace Initiative, which calls for a Palestinian state along 1967 lines, with land swaps. One of those is Yaakov Perry, who warns: "Our continued presence in the territories is a threat to Zionism. With every passing minute further damage is done to the state of Israel." Another signatory was the son of assassinated PM Yitzhak Rabin, Yuval Rabin, who said: "The state of Israel has no foreign policy path. The PM is not initiating such a path and is not presenting an alternative to horrific scenarios that I don't even want to think about."

Israeli commentator Yoel Marcus warned in Haaretz that Israel had "clouds of disaster floating above us". "Bibi is getting on the nerves of the entire world," he wrote. "And that's because of four words: they don't believe him … Israel is marching to the UN General Assembly weak and hated, under very difficult negotiating conditions." In Maariv, the country's second highest selling newspaper, Yaron Dekel wrote of "the global wave of support for the Palestinians" and said the US was now "Israel's last remaining strong supporter". But in the US, influential commentator Thomas Friedman wrote: "He [Netanyahu] has spent his time trying to avoid such a [peace] deal — and everyone knows it."

Netanyahu's inner circle disagrees. In an interview with Inquirer, spokesman Mark Regev says: "He [Netanyahu] would agree with the larger picture that in the end we have to see two states for two people, that Israel does not want to rule over the Palestinians, but you can't just pull out and hope for the best". "The fundamental reason for the current impasse in the peace process is the decision by the Palestinian leadership not to negotiate," he says. "Far from being passive, my Prime Minister has pressed for direct negotiations without preconditions, which encompass the core issues." As to the UN vote, Regev says: "We hope there will be a moral minority, countries like Australia, the US, Canada and South Korea, who will not support a maximalist Palestinian resolution." Does that mean countries that support the motion would be "the immoral majority" ' "I would not use those words," says Regev, "but there is an automatic anti-Israel majority."

But growing frustration is being expressed even by political figures close to Netanyahu. Labor's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said recently, "The world is tired of this conflict and angry at us because we are viewed as conquerors, ruling over another people … we are left with one ally, America, and that relationship is strained, too."

In the past two weeks Israel has ceased to have ambassadors in traditional allies Egypt and Turkey. In Egypt, its diplomats were evacuated after a mob stormed the embassy; and Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after the killing of nine Turks on the Gaza flotilla.

The relationship with Turkey has not recovered since a confrontation two years ago between Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, and Turkey's ambassador to Israel. Ayalon was upset by a Turkish television program depicting Mossad as baby-snatchers, and summoned the ambassador. Ayalon told photographers the ambassador, whose hand he would not shake, would be sitting in "the low chair". Israel's former ambassador to Turkey, Alon Liel, responded: "This time they made him sit in a low chair, next time maybe they'll make him crawl and, who knows, maybe the time after that they'll beat him up at the entrance." The straight-talking Ben-Eliezer said: "Why would you pick a fight with a country with 72 million Muslims ?"

After he lost the prime ministership the first time, Netanyahu admitted he had circumvented Washington's peace efforts. Israeli TV last year broadcast a video in which Netanyahu told settlers in 2001: "I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords." Not knowing he was being filmed, Netanyahu said: "America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction." He had got around the Oslo peace accords, he confided, by promising Washington he would implement them, but then using the definition of "military zone" to remove "the entire Jordan valley" from the accords.

His advisers insist this time he is serious. They reject claims he has made the demand that Palestinians recognise Israel as "a Jewish state" to ensure any peace deal is unachievable. Such a precondition would be politically impossible for any Palestinian leadership, given the unresolved issue of 4.5 million Palestinian refugees and the million Arabs — 20 per cent of Israel's population — living in Israel. "This was not a precondition," Regev says. "We said this was a vital element in any final agreement."

Last year Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pushed through cabinet a motion that all future citizens must pledge an allegiance to "a Jewish and democratic state". He wants to require all 16-year-olds to sign a declaration of loyalty to Zionism before getting an identity card. Palestinians say this could mean the million Arabs in Israel who are Christian and Muslim may have to swear allegiance to Zionism to get a job.

Politically, Netanyahu and Lieberman appear engaged in a battle for leadership of the Right. Lieberman's success at the last election gives him enormous power: he could bring down the government tomorrow and is probably at least as powerful as Netanyahu. In February, Netanyahu announced that his confidant, Uzi Arad, was the new ambassador to London. Lieberman called a press conference and said: "He [Arad] will not be the ambassador to London, simple as that."

On the Palestinian issue, Lieberman is hardly objective: he lives in a settlement that would probably become Palestinian under any peace deal. He has led attacks by government ministers against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas; the most damaging claimed Abbas had privately telephoned Israeli officials during the Gaza war and urged them to topple his Palestinian rivals, Hamas.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials point to The New York Times in May to show Abbas's real agenda. Abbas wrote: "Palestine's admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice." Says Regev: "Palestinians seem to be saying they want a state, not to make peace with Israel, but to continue the conflict."

So, after 63 years, this dispute enters a dangerous new phase: a majority of countries look set to support UN membership for Palestinians but the reality on the ground is probably worse than for years.


Same Day
Clinton: NY not road to Palestine

SAN FRANCISCO: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she sees a "growing recognition" among "parties in the region" that it would be best for Palestinians to abandon a bid for UN membership. Mrs Clinton, at a joint news conference after talks with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd in San Francisco, yesterday said she did not want to set odds of success for the US-led diplomatic effort to ward off the UN bid, but she saw growing support.

In a move that has infuriated Washington and Israel, Palestinian leaders have said they would lodge an application for full membership of the UN next week or go to the General Assembly for enhanced observer membership. Washington has threatened to veto the application if it is made in the Security Council, saying it would harm prospects for peace talks and that a Palestinian state could result only from negotiations with Israel.

"We believe strongly that the road to peace and two states living side by side does not go through New York, it goes through Jerusalem and Ramallah," Mrs Clinton said. "I cannot give you the odds of how successful our entire effort will be, but I think there is certainly a growing recognition among not only the parties in the region but beyond that there is no real answer to all of these concerns that we share other than negotiations on the tough issues." The concerns "will not be resolved if another route is taken", she added.

The US has sent envoys to the region in a last-minute bid to thwart the Palestinians' effort for membership at the UN, a move vehemently opposed by Israel. Mrs Clinton voiced hope that Israel and the Palestinians could resume talks along the contours of a framework laid out by President Barack Obama in May. "We are absolutely committed to pursuing that," she said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad greets the US deputy envoy for the Middle East, Mara Rudman,
as Tony Blair looks on at the UN in New York yesterday. AFP
Abbas urges backing for Palestinian state
The Australian
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NEW YORK: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that he expects a "very difficult" situation after the Palestinians submit their request for full membership at the UN General Assembly. Speaking as he arrived in New York last night, Mr Abbas said he had faced international pressure against the UN bid, which is opposed by the US and Israel. "The Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after the Palestinian approach to the UN through the Security Council to seek full membership for the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital," Mr Abbas said. He called on the Israeli people to recognise the state of Palestine, "proving there can be a two-state solution, and not to lose an opportunity for peace".

Mr Abbas is to present the Palestinian request for full membership in an address to the UN on Friday, after which it will be put to the Security Council — a step Washington warns it will veto.

A new flurry of diplomatic activity began overnight as major powers and Israel leaders undertook frantic efforts to avoid a showdown over the membership bid. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak held an unannounced meeting yesterday. Mr Fayyad said the two had discussed security issues and the Palestinian Authority's readiness to govern.

Officials from the diplomatic quartet on the Middle East — the US, Russia, the EU and the UN — held their own meeting. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks with EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton, while quartet envoy Tony Blair held separate talks with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Abbas was expected to hold his first meeting with Mr Ban overnight.

Mr Blair expressed hope a deal could be reached. "I think there is a way of avoiding a confrontation," the former British prime minister said. Diplomats said talks were likely to continue up to Mr Abbas's request to the UN on Friday.

If the US wields its veto powers, the Palestinians could go straight to the UN General Assembly to seek elevated observer status. This would almost certainly be supported by a majority of the 193 members, and no veto is possible. The US is trying to convince other Security Council members to oppose or abstain on any resolution. If the Palestinian appeal fails to secure nine votes from the 15 council members, any resolution would fail and the US veto would not be necessary, easing embarrassment 12 months after US President Barack Obama said he wanted to see a Palestinian state at the UN within a year.

Mr Blair is seeking a formula that would allow for greater recognition of a Palestinian state and a path back to direct talks with Israel that could satisfy the US. "What we will be looking for … is something that allows their claims and legitimate aspirations for statehood while renewing negotiation directly between the two sides," he said.

Last-minute bid for Middle East talks as vote looms
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BOTH leaders in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict say they are prepared to resume direct negotiations as the UN prepares to consider a motion to admit Palestine. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas said last night he was prepared to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York provided there was "real substance" to the talks. Mr Netanyahu said he was prepared to meet Mr Abbas in New York negotiations to continue in Jerusalem and Ramallah. On Friday, both men will address the UN General Assembly — Mr Abbas will speak first and is expected to call for full UN membership for a Palestinian state, while Mr Netanyahu is expected to argue against, saying he supports "two states for two peoples" but only by direct negotiation.

The manoeuvring came as a new poll found strong international support for Palestinian membership of the UN. The BBC poll of 20,446 people in 19 countries found 49 per cent wanted their countries to support the motion, with 21 per cent opposed and 30 per cent undecided.

Mr Abbas told Fox News yesterday he would meet any Israeli official anytime, "but there is no use if there is nothing tangible". Referring to US President Barack Obama's declaration to the General Assembly last year that he wanted the state of Palestine to be a UN member by this September, Mr Abbas said: "You promised me a state by September 2011. I hope you will deliver." Mr Abbas said at least nine of the 15 UN Security Council members would support the motion — which would force the US to use its veto to stop it, which it does not want to do given its stated support for a Palestinian state.

Mr Netanyahu said last night: "I am offering President Abbas the chance to launch peace negotiations instead of wasting time on futile unilateral steps." Israel has been engaged in an all-out international effort to block the Palestinian motion. Haaretz newspaper reported that the ambassadors of the five largest European nations — Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain — were summoned to Israel's Foreign Ministry last week and "scolded" for their attempt to achieve a unified European position to support a Palestinian motion rather than voting against.

Israel's neighbour Jordan said that unless Israel changed its approach, the future was "very bleak" and this would affect every country in the region. "Israel is at a critical juncture," Jordan's King Abdullah told The Wall Street Journal. "Israel has to decide — does it want to be part of the neighbourhood or does it want to be fortress Israel ?"

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets US President Barack Obama in New York yesterday. Picture: AP
Defiant Abbas ignores Obama's plea
The Australian
John Lyons, New York
Additional reporting: AP, AFP
Friday, September 23, 2011

PALESTINIAN Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will defy international pressure and push for UN membership tonight despite a warning from Barack Obama that "there are no short cuts" to peace. Top Palestinian officials conceded after Mr Abbas met the US President yesterday that the membership bid was likely to be delayed for months but they brushed off Mr Obama's claim that "one-sided declarations in the UN" would not achieve statehood. Mr Obama and Mr Abbas discussed the issue for more than 45 minutes. The US President had a similar meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hours earlier.

The White House refused to confirm whether Mr Obama directly asked the Palestinian leader to abandon his plans to pursue full UN membership, saying only that he reiterated his opposition to the statehood bid and the US intention to issue a veto. Mr Abbas gave no indication that he was ready for compromise, but his aides said they were not setting deadlines for the Security Council to consider the application. And they left the door open for a plan-B request to the General Assembly for an upgrade of their status as a permanent observer to a non-member observer state.

"This is an option that is open to us … starting tomorrow, if we chose to do so, but President Abbas does not want anybody to suspect a lack of seriousness if we address the two councils at the same time," Palestinian negotiator and senior Abbas adviser Nabeel Shaath said. "So he will give some time to the Security Council to consider first our full membership request before heading to the assembly. "We do not have a time limit," Mr Shaath added. Nevertheless, he said, "this is a moment of truth". Saeb Erekat, another top aide, said the pursuit of UN membership would not be slowed. "We will not allow any political manoeuvring on this issue," he said.

That persistence has put the Palestinians on a collision course with the US and Israel. A frustrated Mr Obama told world leaders yesterday in his UN speech that "there are no shortcuts" to peace. A year ago, he made a case for Palestinian statehood, but in his speech he did not mention key issues such as an end to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Palestinian demands that borders be drawn largely according to those that existed before the 1967 Mid-East war. "Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN," Mr Obama told delegates. "If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now."

The Palestinians refused to accept they could not negotiate peace after winning UN recognition. Mr Shaath said that "20 years after Oslo, we're still occupied" by Israel, a reference to the Oslo Accords that were intended to serve as a framework for future negotiations. "The kind of freakish control the Israelis impose on us is unbelievable," he said, referring to restrictions on movement between the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank and Hamas-governed Gaza.

Speaking at a joint appearance with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Obama said the goal of all parties was two states, side by side, living in peace. "Recent events in the region remind us of how fragile peace can be and why the pursuit of Middle East peace is more urgent than ever," he said. "I think we need to pursue that peace, and know that the Prime Minister (Mr Netanyahu) recognises America's commitment to Israel will never waiver, and that our pursuit of a just and lasting peace is one that is not only compatible but we think puts Israel's security at the forefront."

Mr Netanyahu, referring to the joint effort by the US and Israel to avoid a motion by Palestinians seeking membership of the UN, said: "We both agree that Palestinians and the Israelis should … negotiate an agreement of mutual recognition and security. I think this is the only way to get to a stable and durable peace. You've (Mr Obama) also made it clear the Palestinians deserve a state, but it's a state that has to make that peace with Israel, and therefore their attempt to shortcut this process, not negotiate peace — that attempt to get state membership in the UN will not succeed".

"The Palestinians want to achieve a state in the international community, but they're not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return. My hope is that there will be other leaders in the world, as part of the UN, who will meet your call, Mr President, and oppose this effort to shortcut peace negotiations - in fact, to avoid them - because I think that avoiding these negotiations is bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians and bad for peace."

Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied across the West Bank in a show of support for the campaign to become a UN member. The Israeli army said there were isolated incidents of stone throwing, while Palestinian medics said a 13-year-old boy lost an eye when troops fired a teargas cartridge at stonethrowers in Qalandia near Ramallah. But it was well short of the unrest predicted by the Israeli establishment. About 15,000 people created a festive mood in Nablus, with similar numbers in Ramallah and Hebron. Another 10,000 were on the streets of Bethlehem.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas hands over a formal letter for Palestine to be admitted as a state
to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York. Picture: AFP Source: AFP
Abbas, Netanyahu call for immediate peace talks at UN
The Australian Online
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, September 24, 2011

THE two leaders of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have called for the immediate resumption of stalled Middle East peace talks. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both made powerful appeals to an international audience in a diplomatic showdown at the United Nations. In an emotion-charged General Assembly of the UN, Mr Abbas addressed the chamber first, followed by Mr Netanyahu.

The tone was set when Israel 's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, walked out as Mr Abbas was being introduced - before he had spoken a word. When it came time for Mr Netanyahu to speak, the Palestinian delegation remained but the delegations from Iran, Lebanon and Syria were absent. During Mr Abbas' speech, a fight broke out in the public gallery and police had to intervene.

Mr Abbas said the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian people had "renounced violence and terrorism in all its forms". He said the time had come for Israel 's occupation of the West Bank, which it captured in the 1967 war, to end. "Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world," he said. "Will it allow Israel to continue the last occupation in the world ' We are the last people to remain under occupation. Will the world allow Israel to occupy us forever ?"

Mr Abbas said Israel 's policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories embodied colonisation and brutality. "The loss of hope is the most ferocious enemy of peace," he said. "The time has come for our men, women and children to live normal lives, for them to be able to sleep without waiting for the worst that the next day will bring. For mothers to be sure their children will return home without fear of being arrested, for students to go to schools and universities without checkpoints obstructing them, for people to go to hospitals normally, for farmers to be able to take care of their land without fear of occupation, or fear of the settlers with their guard dogs who attack the Palestinians … they build on our lands their homes and uproot and burn olive trees that have existed in Palestine for hundreds of years."

Mr Netanyahu, in his address, called for an immediate meeting in the UN building with Mr Abbas. "I cannot make peace alone, I cannot make peace without you," he said. "President Abbas, I extend my hand, the hand of Israel, in peace, I hope you will clasp that hand, we are both the sons of Abraham … we share the same patriarch, we dwell in the same land, our destinies are intertwined." Mr Netanyahu said Israel and he wanted peace. "We cannot achieve peace through UN resolution but only through direct negotiations between the two parties," he said.

He said when Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip "the entire world applauded. (But) We didn 't get peace, we got war," he said. "We got Iran, which, through its proxy, Hamas, promptly kicked out the PA (Palestinian Authority.) Israelis rightly ask what 's to prevent this from happening again in the West Bank ' Would any of you bring danger so close to your cities ' Israel is prepared to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank but we 're not prepared to have another Gaza there."

Mr Netanyahu said settlements were not at the core of the conflict. "Our conflict has been raging for nearly half a century before there was a single Israeli settlement in the West Bank," he said. "The settlements are a result of the conflict, the settlements are an issue that has to be addressed and resolved in the course of negotiations but the core of conflict is and remains the refusal of Palestinians to recognise a Jewish state in any borders. Israel is the Jewish state. President Abbas, stop walking around this issue. Recognise the Jewish state and make peace with us … Israel is prepared to make painful concessions."

New peace push
The Sunday Mail
Lesley Clark, New York, McClatchy Tribune
Sunday, September 25, 2011

HOURS after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made an impassioned appeal for full UN membership for an independent Palestinian state, US and European diplomats on Friday proposed a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to begin within a month, with the goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2012.

Having failed despite furious lobbying to persuade the Palestinians to drop their application for UN membership, US officials said the proposal by the so-called Quartet of mediators — the US, the UN, the European Union and Russia — offered the best chance to restart negotiations. "The Quartet proposal represents the firm conviction of the international community that a just and lasting peace can only come through communications between the parties," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. In a statement, the Quartet called for "comprehensive proposals" within three months on territory and security and "substantial progress" within six months.

The statement appeared to be an effort to lower the temperature after weeks of intense wrangling by the US and allies to block or delay the Palestinian bid. There appeared to be little common ground between Mr Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as each took the stage at the annual gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly. Both leaders reiterated their positions and blamed each other for the lack of progress in solving the conflict.

Mr Abbas delivered an emotional call for an end to "63 years of suffering" by Palestinians. At the end of his speech, he held up a copy of the statehood application and received a loud ovation from a packed chamber. "This is a moment of truth," Mr Abbas said. "Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world. Will it allow Israel to occupy us forever, and will it allow Israel to remain a state above the law and accountability ?"

Mr Netanyahu, who followed Mr Abbas on the stage just an hour later, insisted that Israel wanted peace but that the Palestinians were the obstacle to a negotiated settlement. "The Palestinians want a state without peace, and you shouldn't let that happen," a defiant Mr Netanyahu said. He did not hide his contempt for the UN, calling it a "theatre of the absurd" for awarding key roles to Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, currently chair of the Security Council. He mocked Abbas for saying that Palestinians were "armed only with their dreams, courage, hope and slogans."

"Yes," Mr Netanyahu said. "Hopes, dreams and 10,000 missiles and Grad rockets supplied by Iran."

UN officials said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon submitted the Palestinian application to the Security Council, which decides whether to recommend admission to the 193-member General Assembly. It was unclear when a vote would take place.

Palestinians in the West Bank town of Ramallah listen to Mahmoud Abbas's speech to the UN. Picture: Yossi Zamir
Netanyahu ready to embrace international plan for peace
The Australian
AFP, The Sunday Times
Monday, September 26, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is ready to accept a quartet plan that foresees a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of next year. "If the quartet calls for the resumption of direct negotiations without preconditions, I think it's an important thing," Mr Netanyahu said in a television interview in the US yesterday.

But the hope of talks without preconditions was dealt a blow last night when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told cheering crowds on his return to Ramallah that the Palestinians would not hold talks without a halt to Israeli settlement building. "There will be no negotiations without international legitimacy and a complete halt to the settlements," he said in an address to thousands who gathered to welcome him back from his bid to secure full UN membership for a Palestinian state. The comments appeared to be a rejection of the quartet's proposal for new talks but no freeze on settlements.

Mr Netanyahu had been cautious when asked about the chances of reaching an agreement by the end of next year. "If there is a willingness to conclude (the deal), it will succeed, because it is promising, but if the will does not exist it will not work," he said. Mr Netanyahu said his government's official position on the quartet's proposal would be announced in the coming days. "I hope the Palestinians will understand in the end it is not possible to do away with the negotiations, they cannot obtain a state and continue the conflict." Mr Netanyahu said Israel's security was his priority. "We will not make the same mistake as in Gaza which became an Iranian base," he said, referring to the seizure of power in the Palestinian territory by Hamas.

The peacemaking quartet, comprised of the US, UN, EU and Russia, proposed a new timetable for talks in a statement shortly after the Palestinians submitted their bid for UN membership on Friday. "This is a moment of history," Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly as he held aloft the printed submission for membership, already on its way to the Security Council. "Our people are waiting to hear the answer of the world." Nawaf Salam, the Lebanese ambassador to the UN, who is president of the Security Council, said the 15-member body would meet today to consider the Palestinian request. The Israelis said they were studying the proposal but were ready to negotiate at any time. The Palestinians, however, reiterated their insistence that settlement building must stop before talks can begin.

In an emotional address, Mr Abbas identified settlements as the greatest impediment to peace, insisting that Palestinians would return to negotiations as soon as Israel stopped seeking to shrink a future Palestinian state by building Jewish settlements on Arab land. "The occupying army is racing against time to redraw the borders," Mr Abbas said. Palestinian dreams of nationhood were being "shattered on the rock of the Israeli settlement project", Mr Abbas warned. "The loss of hope is the most ferocious enemy of peace."

Mr Netanyahu denounced the Palestinian application as an attempt to avoid tough negotiations over issues including settlements. Talks between the two sides have been on hold for nearly a year, grinding to a halt shortly after they were relaunched in Washington over the issue of settlement construction. Israel refused to renew a part freeze on settlement building that expired shortly after the talks started, and the Palestinians say they will not hold any talks while Israel builds on land they want for a state.

Israel hits back at Turkey as tensions soar
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

REPLYING for the first time to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's almost daily tongue lashings of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday termed Mr Erdogan's latest accusation — that Israel has killed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — "outrageous". Israel's outspoken Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, waded into the fray by declaring that Mr Erdogan's administration was "a radical Islamic extremist leadership that supports and develops terror".

Mr Erdogan's attacks on Israel, which have included warnings of naval confrontations, ostensibly stem from Mr Netanyahu's refusal to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish militants aboard an aid flotilla that attempted last year to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Mr Netanyahu expressed sorrow for their deaths but declined to apologise for the use of force by Israeli naval commandos against men who attacked them with knives and metal staves as they descended from a helicopter. He also rejected Mr Erdogan's demand for a lifting of the blockade, which is intended to prevent rockets reaching Gaza by sea.

The Turkish leader began venting his fury after a UN committee, headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, issued a report a month ago finding that, contrary to Turkey's position, the Israeli blockade was legal, as was its boarding of the flotilla on the high seas. It faulted Israel for using excessive force, but acknowledged that the commandos who boarded the vessels were obliged to use force when attacked by the militants.

The Turkish leader ordered the termination of extensive defence contracts and other dealings with Israeli firms and recalled his ambassador to Tel Aviv. He also threatened to send warships to dispute Israeli claims to gas-rich underwater tracts in the eastern Mediterranean. No less ominous were his warning to send warships to protect Turkish aid vessels running Israel's blockade of Gaza, an almost certain scenario for war, at least at sea. In a tour of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, his attacks on Israel were a central feature of all his talks.

Through it all, Mr Netanyahu did not respond and demanded his ministers do likewise so as not to exacerbate relations with Israel's one-time ally. However, his hopes that Mr Erdogan's attacks would taper off were not realised.

In an interview last weekend on CNN, Mr Erdogan said Israel had killed "hundreds of thousands" of Palestinians in response to the killing of a small number of Israelis. He was apparently referring to Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip three years ago in which some 1400 Palestinians were killed, including militants and civilians. Mr Erdogan did not relate the cause of the incursion to the firing of some 10,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli villages and cities in recent years that had terrorised residents. Mr Erdogan also told CNN that Israel was using the Holocaust to perpetuate the idea "that they are the victims all the time".

Mr Netanyahu, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, said the charges had nothing to do with the facts. "We don't use the Holocaust," he said. "To hear this allegation just 60 years after the Holocaust is outrageous."

Mr Lieberman, who for the past month had obeyed Mr Netanyahu's low-profile order, gleefully unburdened himself yesterday after Mr Netanyahu himself had finally picked up the gauntlet. Accusing Turkey of suppressing free speech, he said 57 Turkish journalists were presently imprisoned in their country. "I saw Erdogan on CNN and his appearance was excellent for Israel," he said. "If I wanted to improve Israel's public relations I would have him talk from morning until night."


Same Day
Erdogan pushes all the buttons to spell danger
Daniel Pipes

IN a Middle East wracked by coups d'etat and civil insurrections, the Republic of Turkey credibly offers itself as a model thanks to its impressive economic growth, democratic system, political control of the military and secular order. But in reality Turkey may be, along with Iran, the most dangerous state of the region. Count the reasons:

While Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu crows that Turkey is "right at the centre of everything", AKP bellicosity has soured his vaunted "zero problems" with neighbours policy, turning this into a wide-ranging hostility and even potential military confrontations (with Syria, Cyprus, and Israel).

As economic troubles hit, a once-exemplary member of NATO may go further off track; watch for signs of Erdogan emulating his Venezuelan friend, Hugo Chavez. That's why, along with Iranian nuclear weapons, I see a rogue Turkey as the region's greatest threat.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University

Israeli building plan destabilizes peace talks
The Australian
Joshua Mitnick, The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, September 29, 2011

TEL AVIV: Israel yesterday approved a plan to build 1100 housing units in a section of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, earning condemnation from the US and complicating efforts to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace talks. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move "counterproductive" in a statement and the UN said the building plan "sends the wrong signal" on peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post that the building plans in Gilo are "nothing new" and continued 40-year-old Israeli policies to build up Jerusalem and surround it with Jewish enclaves as a way to solidify its control. The plan, approved by an Interior Ministry panel and now subject to a 60-day public comment period, would expand the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo southward towards Bethlehem.

The Palestinians, who are still preparing a formal answer to the Quartet invitation, demand that Israel stop all building activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition to any talks. The Palestinians and the international community view any Israeli housing in East Jerusalem as settlements, whereas Israelis generally view the structures as neighborhoods in their capital city. Israel annexed East Jerusalem and portions of the West Bank to its capital after capturing the territories in the 1967 Arab Israeli war. "We plan in Jerusalem, and we build in Jerusalem. Period," said Mr Netanyahu in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that appeared on Tuesday.

Proponents of a political compromise in Jerusalem have warned that the Gilo building project limits the potential to reach a compromise on Jerusalem. "It basically closes off the southern portion of East Jerusalem," said Sara Kreimer, a spokeswoman for Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "It doesn't leave any room for negotiations."

Commentary: Netanyahu, Abbas hail wins but victories Pyrrhic at best
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, October 1, 2011

AFTER all the rhetoric at the UN by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the looming future for the region has became abundantly clear: utter hopelessness. While the two sides are unable to sit down and hold direct talks, what has became clear is that they are even unable to hold indirect talks. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas's speech at the UN was clearly designed to appeal to Palestinians and the Arab world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own speech was directed to the Israeli and American publics. The speeches of both men were about shoring themselves up for battle — whether diplomatic, public relations or in the streets — rather than moving towards peace.

"It doesn't matter which of the two speeches induced more despair and hopelessness, Abu Mazen's (Mahmoud Abbas's) radical speech or Netanyahu's conservative speech," wrote Sima Kadmon in Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. "The question is where the rest of this non-process is going to play itself out, on the street or in the international arena."

What is most disturbing is that although the UN event provided no progress to the peace process — there are still no peace talks and no sign of them occurring — both sides claimed victory. "It was an amazing political victory for us," one of Netanyahu's advisers told The Weekend Australian. "A week ago the US faced the prospect of having to use its veto in the UN Security Council — we didn't want them to be put in that position and they weren't." Abbas, for his part, returned to a rapturous welcome in Ramallah. But why ' A Palestinian state is as far away as ever.

Two things showed that, despite claims by both sides that they want to sit down to talk, neither side has any good will towards the other.

On the Israeli side, something happened off-camera that revealed the real attitude of one of the most powerful men in the Israeli government, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. A few minutes before Abbas was due to speak, hundreds of UN delegates and members of the public rushed into the UN General Assembly in New York. Foreign ministers and ambassadors from around the world, including Mr Lieberman and Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, joined the crowd. The sense of anticipation was palpable. For months this had been a much-discussed speech. Although Lieberman had said for the past two years that Abbas was not a legitimate leader and was the obstacle to peace, he did the correct thing by turning up.

With Abbas due to come to the podium, there was not an empty seat in the chamber. But due to a scheduling error, just as everyone expected Abbas to walk on stage, the chairman announced that the leader of Armenia was to speak. The chamber broke out into laughter. Lieberman, like everyone else, listened politely to Armenia's perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Then, finally, the moment came — the chairman announced the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Hundreds gave Abbas a standing ovation. CNN described the applause as "thunderous".

As the applause continued, something strange happened at Israel's table. Lieberman stood up and walked out. Prosor followed. Lieberman, a man who would be a key part of any peace agreement, walked out without hearing a word. An hour later, he walked back into the chamber to hear Netanyahu describe Abbas as his "partner for peace". Leading Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wrote: "I was ashamed for all of us."

The other side showed a lack of good will as well. This was Abbas's opportunity to speak not just to millions around the world, but to every Israeli. Since the barbaric Palestinian campaign of killing civilians in the second intifada, or uprising, only eight years ago, Israelis distrust Palestinians. That intifada affected thousands of Israeli families and virtually wiped out the Centre and the Left — those Israelis prepared to support a peace deal. This was Abbas's chance to extend the olive branch.

For a while he did. "We extend our hands to the Israeli government and the Israeli people for peacemaking," he said. "I say to them: let us urgently build together a future for our children where they can enjoy freedom, security and prosperity. Let us build the bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation, and build co-operative relations based on parity and equity between two neighbouring states, Palestine and Israel, instead of policies of occupation, settlement, war and eliminating the other." Then, with one line, he reinforced distrust.

"I come before you today from the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people." To an Israeli audience, this was devastating. Obviously Jews, Christians and Muslims all have a historical connection to parts of Israel and the West Bank, but to try to expunge the Jewish connection as if they had no claim was provocative and self-defeating.

"Abu Mazen's speech was disgusting," one of Israel's leading journalists, Shimon Shiffer, said. "For me as an Israeli, it was disgusting to mention Muslims and Christians but not us." Shiffer is hardly hostile to the Palestinians. Like many leading Israeli journalists, he supports a Palestinian state, claiming it is both in Israel's interests and just. But to anger someone who has been one of the biggest supporters of the Palestinians was extraordinary. That didn't mean Shiffer was impressed with Netanyahu's speech either. "It was a catastrophe. For a day or two, he will get a boost in Israel, but in two weeks nothing will have changed. This is a catastrophe for my country."

The future now looks bleak. Politically, both men feel they won. Abbas was hailed in Ramallah and Netanyahu is now more popular in Israel than when elected. Both sides are insisting on conditions they know the other cannot accept. The Palestinians are insisting on a freeze in settlement growth. Netanyahu will not agree to this as it would outrage Lieberman and possibly bring down his coalition. The Israelis are insisting on the Palestinians formally acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state. But Abbas cannot, as it would be seen to be abandoning the million Arabs who live in Israel.

And, like so many other US presidents before him, Barack Obama has been defeated by the Middle East — at least until the next election. The last thing he wants as he battles for re-election is a year-long fight with the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

All three leaders have made their positions clear and retreated into their own constituencies. The big question is: does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict descend into a new round of violence, or will both sides be able to manage the daily hostilities indefinitely to prevent another devastating intifada '

Panetta warns Israel of isolation
The Australian
Julian Barnes, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, October 4, 2011

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned Sunday that Israel was at risk of becoming isolated and more vulnerable if it did not take steps to repair ties with neighbouring countries and restart negotiations with the Palestinians. Mr Panetta said the US remained committed to helping Israel maintain its "qualitative military edge" in the Middle East, however, genuine security would not come through military hardware but by returning to peace negotiations. "The question you have to ask is: 'Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you are isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena '?" he said. "Real security can only be achieved by strong diplomatic efforts as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength."

Mr Panetta made the comments while en route to Israel for a visit, starting Monday. While there, he will try to restart direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Mr Panetta, a former director of the CIA, said the US wanted to give the Israelis confidence that they could "take risks for peace" and make "room to negotiate."

He is also scheduled to travel to Egypt to meet officials, and said he would attempt to help improve communications and co-operation between Cairo and Jerusalem. Israel has strained to maintain ties with neighbouring countries that it formerly had strong working relationships with. Turkey, which once had close ties to Israel, has grown distant over the issue of the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Israel's relations with Egypt have also deteriorated, culminating in a recent attack on the Israeli embassy by protestors in Cairo.

Mr Panetta said the events of the Arab Spring had made it critical for Israel to repair those frayed relationships, and suggested that the start of direct negotiations could be the kind of diplomatic overture that improves ties. "It is pretty clear at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened," Mr Panetta said.

On Sunday, Israel again appeared to endorse — with qualifications — calls to resume direct negotiations with the Palestinians, but Palestinian officials say they will return to negotiations only after Israel promises to freeze settlement building. The US last week issued another rebuke to Israel for announcing plans for 1100 units in southeast Jerusalem.

Mr Panetta insisted the two sides risked nothing by resuming direct talks, and said that would be among the message he delivered in his meetings. He said during negotiations no one would tell either side what they had to give up. "In many ways they can protect their interests when they go into negotiations and at the same time open the door to finding a way to resolve the difficult issues that are there," Mr Panetta said.

An Arab-Israeli boy looks at the remains of the mosque burned overnight in an arson attack by Jewish extremists
in northern village of Tuba Zangaria, 2 kms west of the Golan Heights, which is predominantly Bedouin. AFP
Mosque burning in Israel fuels tensions
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ISRAEL will immediately send extra police and Shin Bet agents to its Arab towns as fears grow of an escalation of violence. The move comes after Jewish extremists were believed to have burnt a mosque and its holy books in what was seen as a "price tag" attack, under which Jewish extremists target Palestinians or their property as retribution for something the Palestinians or Israeli government has done.

Israeli President Shimon Peres last night described the attack on the mosque as "horrible". "It is unconscionable that a Jew would harm something that is holy to another religion," Mr Peres said. "These acts destroy relations between us and our neighbours and between the various religions in Israel. We will not allow extremists and criminals to undercut the need to live together equally in equality and mutual respect."

The arson attack came as US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta was visiting Israel, and he warned now was not the time for the US congress to withhold $US200 million ($212m) in financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority as retribution for the Palestinian motion at the UN seeking statehood. "The US administration opposes holding these funds from the Palestinians," he said. "This is a critical time and it is not the time to withhold those funds." Mr Panetta urged the Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct negotiations to seek a peace agreement.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told Mr Panetta the Palestinians were ready to return to negotiations if Israel stopped building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and to agree to a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for the renewal of direct negotiations without preconditions, but has demanded the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.

The attack on the mosque dominated the news in Israel yesterday. While attacks by Jewish extremists are not uncommon in the West Bank, under Israeli military occupation, they are rare inside Israel. The mosque was in the northern village of Tuba Zangaria, which is predominantly Bedouin. The attack shocked Israelis, as many Bedouins from this and other villages serve in the Israeli Defence Forces. Under a front-page headline "Jewish terrorism gaining steam", The Jerusalem Post said the latest attack should serve as a "wake-up call" for Israel's legal and defence establishment. The paper said in recent months Shin Bet, the domestic security and intelligence service, had recorded a growing number of "price-tag" attacks amounting to several dozen over the past year. "In most cases, no one is ever arrested, and if someone is arrested, they are sometimes let off without charges," it said.

Police said the situation in the village remained tense. "Large numbers of police remain deployed in the village of Tuba Zangaria," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. "Last night, there was a series of demonstrations during which rocks were thrown at security forces, who responded with anti-riot means to disperse the protesters," he said, adding that a medical clinic and a cultural centre had been set alight. Israel's largest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, warned that action against "the price-tag underground" was urgently needed. The paper called on Shin Bet to "thwart and stop Jewish terrorism, to get the 'Price Tag' underground out of the area, and to convince the legal establishment not to go lightly on Jewish terrorists and law-breakers".


Same Day
Inside or out, Israeli militancy makes no friends
John Lyons

JERUSALEM: President Barack Obama might well have retreated from the Middle East conflict to engage in his battle for re-election, but clearly some of his officials remain on the job. Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defence, made that clear this week as he flew to Israel — and warned about Israel becoming increasingly isolated. "The question you have to ask is: is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena ?" he said. The assessment echoes that reported recently by his predecessor Robert Gates who, like Panetta, is a former head of the CIA. According to Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, Gates told Obama that Benjamin Netanyahu was "not only ungrateful but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel's growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank".

In Egypt, Israel no longer has a resident ambassador since mobs attacked the embassy, and in Ankara it no longer has an ambassador since Turkey expelled him when Israel would not apologise over the killing of nine Turkish citizens on the Gaza flotilla. In Jordan, the Israeli ambassador was evacuated when the security situation deteriorated, although he has returned. Of all Israel's neighbours, Jordan is the only one with which it has a predictable relationship, but even that is strained. Jordan's King Abdullah, traditionally a supporter, blames Israel for a lack of progress in peace talks. He recently told The Wall Street Journal: "I think the best way to describe my view toward Israel is my increasing frustration because they're sticking their heads in the sand and pretending that there's not a problem."

A senior Israeli official speaking to The Australian yesterday conceded that Israel was "growing increasingly isolated", but argued that some of this was beyond Israel's control. The incident in which Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called in Turkey's ambassador, refused to shake his hand and made him sit in a low chair "didn't help". He felt Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was making capital in the Muslim world by "bashing Israel". In Egypt, he said, there was a constituency hostile to Israel.

Meanwhile,this week Jewish extremists in Israel are suspected of having burnt a mosque and holy books. Israel's President Shimon Peres said: "This act is not Jewish, (it is) illegal, immoral and brings upon us heavy shame." With growing isolation externally and growing tensions internally, there are few signs for optimism for Israel.

An Israeli soldier sits in an army jeep as Palestinian protesters throw stones after troops destroyed a water well
in the West Bank village of Beit Kahel, near Hebron. AFP
Settlers in 'price-tag' hit on Israeli troops
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Saturday, October 8, 2011

TENSIONS in the West Bank have escalated as Jewish settlers stepped up their "price-tag" campaign against Palestinians and attacked Israeli troops for the first time in living memory. The assault on Israeli soldiers came as an 18-year-old Jewish settler was arrested over the burning of a mosque and holy books in northern Israel.

Violence has increased since Jewish extremists were reported to have burnt the mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tuba Zangaria last Monday as part of their "price-tag" attack campaign. This means the settlers attack Palestinians to punish them for actions they disapprove of — on this occasion in response to the Palestinians taking their bid for statehood to the UN. They also use "price tag" - often writing the words during an attack - against Palestinians if the Israeli government or army does something they dislike, such as dismantling one of the illegal Jewish outposts in the West Bank.

In recent weeks, the hardline settlers have broadened the "price-tag" campaign to attacks on the Israeli army, including a raid on a military base in which they damaged 13 vehicles. In the latest assault, settlers surrounded an Israeli patrol in the West Bank and began attacking the soldiers. One of the soldiers was punched in the face. One settler was detained but later escaped into a Jewish outpost.

An Israeli Defence Forces spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, told The Weekend Australian the soldiers on patrol were initially stopped by "a roadblock of rocks". "I cannot remember the last time violent contact took place between settlers and soldiers," Colonel Leibovich said. "It is disturbing, and we cannot accept this kind of hooligan behaviour."

The burning of the mosque on Monday shocked many Israelis — mosque burnings in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation, have occurred before, but this was inside Israel and in a village where many members of the Bedouin community serve in the IDF. Despite efforts by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Muslim and Christian leaders to call for calm, clashes have occurred in and around the Bedouin village since. The 18-year-old arrested over the mosque arson was a student at a Yeshiva school in the settlement of Yitzhar.

In a separate matter, two Palestinians were reported to have confessed to throwing rocks at a car near the settlement of Kiryat Arba, which caused a crash that killed a father and his son. This week, several olive groves have been cut down and burned - Jewish settlers said Palestinians had set their olive trees on fire, while Palestinians said the settlers cut down their trees. The Haaretz newspaper said that in their campaign, the settlers were publishing on websites the full names of members of Shin Bet, Israel's secret security service, which are meant to be kept secret. The paper said the extremists were trying to intimidate senior law-enforcement officials.

People gather outside the Israeli Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem yesterday to celebrate the prisoner exchange with Hamas
Getty Images
Foes rejoice at prisoner exchange
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, October 13, 2011

ONE of the largest prisoner swaps in modern history, announced yesterday by bitter enemies Israel and Hamas, was greeted with exultation by both Jews and Palestinians while Western nations were quick to offer congratulations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was "delighted" at the news of the accord and telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to congratulate him for this "major success", the Elysee said.

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity in the Gaza Strip for five years, is set to be freed in coming days in return for the release of up to 1000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. After several occasions in which a deal was close, Mr Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal yesterday both confirmed the swap. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — for whom Hamas is a rival for Palestinian power — last night "warmly" welcomed the deal, describing it as a "Palestinian national achievement". In the Gaza Strip, Hamas said "tens of thousands" of Palestinians had flooded streets to celebrate the expected release of Palestinian detainees.

Corporal Shalit, 25, was captured in a cross-border raid by Hamas while he was on patrol near the Israel-Gaza border in 2006. Mr Netanyahu said Corporal Shalit was likely to be freed "in coming days" but the exact date of return was not known. The deal is likely to be a political win for both sides. The Shalit family in the past has accused Mr Netanyahu of not doing enough to secure the release of Corporal Shalit but last night praised him. The Palestinian prisoners will be released in two waves, the first 450 in coming days and the rest in the weeks after.

Mr Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet: "I believe we have reached the best agreement possible at this time when storms are raging in the Middle East. I don't know if we could have reached a better agreement or even one at all, in the near future. It's possible that this window of opportunity would have closed for good and we never would have brought Gilad home."

Mr Meshaal, speaking from his home in Damascus, said: "We are happy with this great achievement and we thank our God for that. But our happiness is mixed with sorrow because we were not able to gain the freedom of all prisoners." There are about 6000 Palestinians in jail in Israel. It appeared that Marwan Barghouti, often touted as a possible successor to Mr Abbas, would not be on the list.

In Israel, there has long been support for a deal to repatriate Corporal Shalit, but some oppose such a deal on the grounds it will inevitably involve the release of some prisoners responsible for killing Israelis, and would give Hamas an incentive to kidnap other soldiers. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposed the deal, saying he did so "with a heavy heart", but the leaders of Israel's two main security organisations, Shin Bet and Mossad, were in favour. The head of Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen, told Israeli radio that Israel did not agree to refrain from killing "terrorists" who were to be released if they went back to committing acts of violence.

In recent years, Corporal Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, have set up a tent near the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem that has become their makeshift home. The tent has become a place where leaders and foreign ministers often visit to meet the parents. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd visited last year. Ms Shalit said she would wait "with great trepidation" for her son's return.

Gilad Shalit salutes PM Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving in Israel. Getty Images

Noam Shalit hugs his son Gilad Shalit as Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu looks on at Tel Nof Airbase. Getty Images
Freedom at last for Israel's lost son
The Australian's front page headline
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PALE and thin, and wearing an Israeli army uniform several sizes too big, freed soldier Gilad Shalit has returned to his home town to a hero's welcome. After more than five years in solitary confinement in the Gaza Strip, a motorcade carrying Sergeant Major Shalit and his family was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers carrying Israeli flags.

In one of the largest and most complicated prisoner swaps in history, Sergeant Major Shalit, 25, was transferred by Hamas through a crossing in Gaza into Egypt. He was then handed to Israeli army officers, who flew him to Tel Nof military base where his parents, Noam and Aviva, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited for him.

"Hello Gilad, welcome back to Israel. It's so good to have you back home," Mr Netanyahu told the newly released soldier. As he presented Sergeant Major Shalit to his parents, Mr Netanyahu said: "I have returned your son home." In his first interview after leaving Gaza, Sergeant Major Shalit said he hoped his release would help improve relations between Israelis and Palestinians. He said he would like to see the release of the remaining thousands of Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails "on condition that they stop fighting against Israel". "I hope this deal will promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians," he told Egyptian state television.

The United States has raised concerns about some of the Palestinians released as part of the prisoner swap deal, with a spokesman for the State Department suggesting some would pose a security threat. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Libya at the time, saluted the end of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit's "long ordeal," saying he had been held "far too long." Scenes of celebration were also seen in the West Bank and Gaza, as families were reunited. Men wept as they embraced their sons and brothers, while women, some of them draped in the Palestinian flags and the green banner of Hamas, ululated.

Shalit was captured in 2006 by Hamas fighters when he was in a tank on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. A corporal when seized, he was twice promoted while in captivity, most recently on Monday. At times during last night's interview, he looked pale, thin and stressed, and breathed heavily. He gave the interview shortly after being handed over by Hamas to Israeli officials as part of a deal under which 1027 Palestinians will be released. Sergeant Major Shalit looked happier a short time later when speaking to his parents by telephone once on Israeli soil.

In a carefully orchestrated series of exchanges, once it was confirmed Sergeant Major Shalit had left Gaza — just after dawn — 27 female Palestinian prisoners were released. Then 450 male prisoners were released. The remaining 550 will be released in coming days. The process began with Sergeant Major Shalit being driven by Hamas to the Rafah crossing on the border between Gaza and Egypt where he was handed to Egyptian officials.

In the interview, Sergeant Major Shalit was asked what he had missed most. "Obviously I missed my family a lot and also I missed my friends," he said. "I missed meeting normal people to talk to them, to tell them about my experience through these years in captivity. I have a lot to do when I am free." He was asked about the thousands of Palestinian prisoners who remain in Israeli jails. "I will be very happy if all these prisoners are freed so that they can be able to go back to their families, loved ones and to their territory," he said. "It would give me great happiness if this happens."

Sergeant Major Shalit said he always believed he would be released but thought it would take longer than it had. Asked about his release, he said: "I think the Egyptians succeeded through their good relations with Hamas and also with the Israeli side. "These relations helped the conclusion of the deal."

The deal proceeded after Israel's Supreme Court rejected an appeal on the basis that any delay could endanger Sergeant Major Shalit's life. Some relatives of Israelis killed in terrorist acts appealed against the release of prisoners involved in the killing of their relatives. Opinion polls in Israel showed support of about 70 per cent for the deal. Given the central role of the army in Israel — serving for 18-year-olds is compulsory — the desire to bring a captured soldier home has outweighed concerns about some of those released. Mr Netanyahu, addressing the sentiment of relatives of those killed, said yesterday: "I know that you have a heavy heart, that your wounds have been opened anew these past days, that your thoughts are not at ease. The decision regarding Gilad Shalit was among the most difficult I have made."

Israel is believed to have a further 5000 Palestinians in prison. The Shalit family had since last year maintained a tent in Jerusalem to keep the case in the public eye.

US wary as Israel applauds Shalit
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional Reporting: Agencies
Thursday, October 20, 2011

AS Israel exploded in joy at the homecoming of released soldier Gilad Shalit, the US has expressed unease about some of the prisoners released from Israeli jails as part of the exchange deal. "We have looked at some of these individuals and we've communicated our position," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a press briefing yesterday. Later, the State Department issued a statement saying: "As a matter of principle, the US opposes the release of individuals who have been convicted of crimes against Americans". Despite these reservations, the White House welcomed the release of Sergeant Major Shalit, 25, who spent his first night at home in northern Israel after five years of solitary confinement. He was captured in 2006 by Hamas fighters who had dug their way under the border between Gaza and Israel.

Amid a rapturous welcome to his village Mitzpe Hila yesterday, his father, Noam, told supporters: "Today we have experienced the rebirth of our son. When I saw Gilad, I didn't say much. I just hugged him and, if I remember correctly, said 'Welcome'." Sergeant Major Shalit was freed in return for 1027 Palestinian prisoners. Yesterday, 450 Palestinian men and 27 women were released, and families rejoiced to welcome home their sons and daughters. The remaining 550 men will be released in coming weeks.

Underlying the deal is intense rivalry between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. The most notable Palestinian left off the list was Marwan Barghouti, widely seen as a possible successor to Mahmoud Abbas. The deal was done by Hamas, rather than Fatah, and the fact that Barghouti was left off may reflect his political rivals not wanting to see him strengthen Fatah.

In Gaza, where many of the freed prisoners were transferred, more than 100,000 people gathered to celebrate. As a sign of the sense of victory felt by supporters of the Hamas regime due to the large number of prisoners returned for one soldier, some in the crowd chanted "Another Shalit!" In Cairo, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said: "We are victorious against Israel. The Israeli public knows who has retreated." Another Hamas official, Mussa Abu Marzuk, said: "Israel must realise it has to free our remaining prisoners. If they are not released normally, they will be released in other ways."

Before arriving home in Israel, Sergeant Major Shalit told Egyptian television: "I'm very emotional. I don't feel that good." Noam Shalit told supporters "Gilad feels quite well" but suffered from minor shrapnel wounds that had been untreated during his captivity. He said his son was not able to face the size of the crowd that had gathered at the family home. Hamas denied their captive Red Cross or any other medical access. Noam Shalit said his son had told him that at first he was not treated well but as time progressed this improved and he was given access to a radio and television. He thanked "the faithful activists" who had kept his son's case in the public mind.

While Mr Shalit and his wife, Aviva, campaigned tenaciously within Israel for their son's release, supporters around the world worked to keep the issue alive as well. In Australia, members of the Jewish community such as Danny Lamm, Ginette Searle and Elly Shalev had worked for years on activities to keep awareness of Gilad Shalit's plight high. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd last year insisted on visiting the Shalits to tell them they had enormous support in Australia.

Reaction around the world to his release was generally positive. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it was "a huge relief for France" — Shalit is a dual citizen of Israel and France. The Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi called for "the release of all Palestinian and Arab prisoners and detainees who are still being held by Israeli occupation forces".


Same Day Commentary
Joy ' No, another chapter in Israel's book of sorrows
Daniel Finkelstein, The Times

ON January 3, 1895, a journalist stood in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire in Paris and witnessed a ceremony that changed his life and the life of millions. The ceremony was the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and the journalist was the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, Theodor Herzl. Watching as Dreyfus's epaulettes, buttons and chevrons were torn from his uniform, as the guards adjutant broke the captain's sword over his knee, the captain let forth a cry of innocence and the mob jeered, Herzl turned finally from his settled way as an assimilated Jew.

The wrongful conviction of Dreyfus for espionage struck the journalist as obviously the result of prejudice against the Jewish soldier. That summer he sat down to write his book, Der Judenstaat, a call for the Jews to have a land of their own, a refuge against antisemitism and persecution. With its publication, he became the great Zionist pioneer.

On Tuesday, in the land that Herzl helped to create, there was a ceremony of a different kind. An outpouring of joy, relief and emotion as young Gilad Shalit returned home from captivity and embraced his family once again. The two ceremonies, different though they are, are linked.

The deal that Hamas accepted to release Shalit was an extraordinary one: more than 1000 prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier. Amana Muna, who lured a 16-year-old boy into a trap and murder by her friends, freed; Musab Haslemon, who sent two suicide bombers to Beersheba, where they mounted buses and killed 16 people, freed; Nasser Yataima, who planned the bombing of the Park Hotel in Natanya in which 30 died, freed; Ahlam Tamimi, who drove a suicide bomber to a pizza parlour in Jerusalem, where 15 people died, freed.

Why would you agree to a deal like that ' Herzl's experience provides the explanation.

In the moment of Dreyfus's degradation, Herzl had the thought that came to define the Zionist movement. He decided world opinion could not be trusted. He determined that Jews would have to defend themselves. And the events of the 20th century both before and after his death bore out his analysis.

In the end, after World War II, the international community concluded that it would have to let Israel exist because for many survivors of the concentration camps there was nowhere else for them safely to go. So the idea of defending every Israeli life is bound up with the country's very existence. Israel is an idea — the Jews will save each other one by one. And Israel is a pact — you will defend me to the death and I will defend you.

Seen this way, the deal to release Shalit is an expression of the national spirit. Israel would not be Israel if it did not do this. Agreeing to release such a large number of prisoners in exchange for one person is not a piece of maths about Palestinians — 1000 of them for one of us; it is a piece of maths about Israelis — all of us for one of us.

There is one other element to the arrangement to free Shalit. A religious one, the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the commandment to redeem prisoners. It is a law that sees captivity as worse than starvation or death. It helps a little to explain why Shalit in captivity was such a powerful symbol in Israel. But, like every Jewish law, pidyon shvuyim is open to argument. It is true that it attaches immense importance to freeing captives. Yet at the same time, it insists that the price should not be greater than the value of the captive. Viewed coolly, it is hard not to conclude that Israel has broken this part of the commandment.

Hamas has acted out of weakness, as it has been losing support in Gaza, but it gains strength as a result of this deal. And it is — for all that the Palestinian people need a state — a vile, murderous organisation. The British released terrorist prisoners when the IRA finally decided that the armed struggle was over. Not so with these prisoners. Hamas says that they will return to the conflict. Peace will come when it is obvious that war will not succeed. The Shalit deal sends the opposite message. It says that capturing Israelis and ransoming them is the route to success. Yesterday, in Gaza, Palestinians were chanting: "We want another Shalit." And surely, they will get one. In 2004, Israel exchanged the bodies of three soldiers and one living civilian for 430 Palestinian prisoners. Now the price is higher still.

In the 1920s, my grandfather was one of the leaders of the assimilated German Jewish community. And he was engaged in constant debate with Zionists. A Jewish state in Palestine would always be at war, he argued. The experience of the Jewish people teaches only one lesson, the Zionists replied: the lesson that we need a place to call our own where we can defend ourselves. The great tragedy of Jewish history in the last century, and of the Palestinian people, too, is that my grandfather and the Zionists were both right. That's why, when I watched the celebrations in Gaza and in Israel, I felt still the fear and the sadness that Herzl felt. Tuesday was not a triumph, just another chapter in a book of sorrows.

US pulls Syria envoy after regime threats
The Australian
Wednesday, October 25, 2011

WASHINGTON: The US has pulled its ambassador out of Syria over security concerns, blaming President Bashar al-Assad's government for the threats. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last night that ambassador Robert Ford returned to Washington at the weekend after "credible threats against his personal safety".

Mr Toner could not say when Mr Ford might go back to Syria, saying it depended on a US "assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground". The spokesman said Washington hoped the Syrian regime would end its "incitement campaign" against the ambassador. "Ambassador Ford's presence is a benefit to our mission in Syria as he has worked diligently to deliver our message and be our eyes on the ground," he said. "This decision was based solely on the need to ensure his safety, a matter we take extremely seriously." Haynes Mahoney, US deputy chief of mission in Damascus, confirmed that Mr Ford was out of the country, but emphasised Washington had not formally recalled him.

Mr Ford has enraged Syrian authorities with his forceful defence of peaceful protests, and harsh critique of a government crackdown that has now killed nearly 3000 people. He particularly angered Mr Assad's regime in July when he was met by demonstrators in the restive city of Hama. Mr Ford has been the subject of several incidents of intimidation by pro-government thugs, usually in co-ordination with pro-Assad media capturing the humiliation.

Last month, Mr Ford and several colleagues from the embassy were pelted with tomatoes and eggs as they visited an opposition figure in Damascus. US officials said the assault was part of a campaign to intimidate diplomats investigating Mr Assad's repression of pro-reform demonstrators. Other such incidents have occurred after meetings with dissident groups or individuals. Although Mr Assad's government has allowed Mr Ford to remain in the country, it has tried to restrict where he can travel.

Earlier this month, the US Senate unanimously approved Mr Ford's nomination, with Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, praising the diplomat for continuing to visit cities under siege and "speak truth to power". Mr Ford had been in Syria since January after being appointed to the post temporarily when the Senate was out of session. Senator Kerry said Mr Ford has been steadfast "despite even being physically attacked and assaulted by the regime's goons".

Israelis, Palestinians exchange rocket fire; 11 dead
The Globe and Mail
Patrick Martin, Jerusalem
Monday, October 31, 2011

Israel sent a deadly message to Palestinian militant groups in Gaza this weekend as at least 10 Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in an exchange of missile fire Saturday and Sunday. Israeli actions were directed at Islamic Jihad and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), both of which were attacked as they reportedly prepared to launch rockets against Israel. These smaller resistance groups, fortified by weapons apparently smuggled into Gaza from Libya, have grown increasingly militant of late, disappointed by Hamas 's apparent willingness to co-operate with Israel. Israel 's attacks have cast Hamas, which governs Gaza, in an awkward role familiar to the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank — that of enforcing non-violence in the territory it controls for the benefit of Israel.

By late Sunday night, a ceasefire by all parties negotiated by Egypt appeared to be holding, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made it clear that ceasefire or not, Israel wouldn 't hesitate to strike again. "There is no ceasefire," Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet colleagues as they gathered in the northern Israeli town of Safed for their Sunday meeting. "We will prevent any attempt to shoot at Israel, and will strike at anybody who nevertheless succeeds," the Prime Minister said. Mr Netanyahu explained that Israel 's defence policy is based on two principles: "Kill or be killed" and "He who harms you should bear the blood on his head."

The sequence of events began as early as Wednesday night when a Grad rocket launched by Islamic Jihad landed in an area just south of Tel Aviv. While no one was hurt, it was the furthest any missile had been fired from the Gaza Strip and set off alarms in Israeli Defence headquarters. Israel waited until Saturday morning before retaliating, choosing a meeting of a high-ranking Islamic Jihad military commander and several of his rocket men as a target. The commander, Ahmed Sheikh Khalil, was said by an Israel Defence Forces spokesman to have been associated with the launch of Wednesday 's rocket. Commander Khalil and four others were reported killed by missiles fired by two Israeli fighter jets.

Islamic Jihad responded with fury, firing some 20 missiles into southern Israel. A 56-year-old Israeli father of four was killed Saturday night from shrapnel from a rocket that landed in Ashkelon, the major Israeli municipality nearest to Gaza. The man had apparently just left his car to take refuge in a bomb shelter when the missile landed. Israeli jets struck again Saturday night, killing at least four other members of Islamic Jihad as they were said to be preparing to launch a rocket from the Rafah area.

Islamic Jihad rockets continued to fall Sunday morning even as Egypt attempted to negotiate a ceasefire between the two sides. The rockets fell silent by midmorning as the ceasefire appeared to hold, for a few hours at least. Israel then struck again Sunday afternoon, this time at two members of the DFLP who were said to be preparing to launch a rocket. One of the men was killed, the other badly wounded.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and urged "maximum Israeli restraint" in the wake of the attacks, his spokesman said in a statement on Sunday.

Through it all this weekend, Hamas, which had seized power in Gaza from Mr Abbas 's PA forces in 2007, was silent. Groups such as Islamic Jihad want to continue to resist Israel 's control of Gaza 's border crossings and to remind people that Hamas is not the only resistance movement in Gaza. Islamic Jihad is increasingly becoming allied with extremist Salafi groups that fault Hamas for not waging all-out war against Israel. Hamas tolerates some of these groups ' militant actions, both as a means of letting off steam and as a way to show Israel that the campaign to open Gaza 's border crossings is far from over.

At the same time, however, Hamas does not want anything to affect an upcoming Israeli release of 550 Palestinian prisoners. The release is the second stage of a prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas that included the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas also is trying to develop a closer relationship with Egypt, perhaps even moving its headquarters to Cairo from Damascus. But Egypt, like Israel, expects Hamas to keep order in Gaza, and that includes reining in other militant groups.

It is not an easy situation for Hamas to deal with, particularly since it released Sergeant Shalit, whose presence had conferred on the Islamist group a kind of protection. It was widely believed in Gaza that as long as Sgt. Shalit was held hostage, Israel would not assassinate any senior Hamas leaders, lest Hamas lynch the Israeli soldier in return. As all these events were unfolding on Saturday and Sunday, no Hamas leader could be found in the usual Gaza haunts. All had gone to ground, wary of a possible Israeli strike against them.

Arabs demand Syria pull back
The Australian
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

DOHA: A proposed Arab League plan to end months of bloodshed in Syria includes a demand to remove tanks from the streets, the Pan-Arab group said last night. "The Arab proposal to Syria calls for withdrawing tanks and all military vehicles to bring an immediate end to the violence and give assurances to the Syrian street," Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said in the Qatar capital, Doha.

The Arab League was last night awaiting a response from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to its plan which, Mr Arabi said, also calls for a dialogue to take place in Cairo between Syrian regime officials and opposition figures. Arab foreign ministers met their Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem on Sunday in Doha for talks amid growing fears among regional leaders that unchecked Syrian bloodshed could further inflame the Arab world. Mr Muallem was expected to give Mr Assad's response.

The region is already reeling from unprecedented uprisings that have since January unseated three long-time dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Qatar Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said Mr Assad risks forcing an international intervention — an apparent reference to the NATO action in Libya — if he allows the violence to continue. "The entire region is at risk of a massive storm," Sheik Hamad said after the three-hour meeting. Mr Assad must take "concrete steps" to end the unrest, which has claimed more than 3000 Syrian lives since March, he said. A follow-up meeting of Arab League foreign ministers will be held in Cairo tomorrow night.

Mr Assad warned in a newspaper interview that any Western intervention in Syria would cause an "earthquake" across the Middle East. "Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region," Mr Assad told Britain's Sunday Telegraph.

The Doha talks came as Syrian activists put mounting pressure on the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership of the 22-member bloc and protests across Syria on Sunday calling for the league to "freeze the membership" of Syria. The toll in Syria continued to rise yesterday when a man was shot dead by a sniper in the protest hub city of Homs. On Sunday, at least seven people were killed in violence in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Daraa and other cities, human rights groups said. Almost 100 people were killed in Syria on Friday and Saturday, the two bloodiest days yet of the uprising. Among the victims were 30 security agents and dozens of civilians, according to Syrian Human Rights Observatory.

In Damascus, a national committee began work yesterday "to draft a new constitution for Syria," the official SANA news agency reported. A new constitution was one of the key demands of the Syrian opposition at the start of their protests in March. Now they want Mr Assad's ouster.

US cuts cash over Palestine vote
The Australian
Brad Norington, Washington Correspondent
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

THE US has abruptly cut off funding to UNESCO after Palestine was accepted as a member of the organisation in its push for international recognition. Following a legal requirement to cease funding, the US State Department confirmed yesterday that the Obama administration would not make the $US60 million ($57m) payment to UNESCO that is due this month. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the vote to admit Palestine by UNESCO's member states was "regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East".

The UNESCO vote at the organisation's headquarters in Paris follows the frustrated campaign by the Palestinian leaders to gain full recognition for Palestine as a state during the September session of the UN in New York. Palestine won the right to join the UN's educational, scientific and cultural organisation yesterday in a 107-14 vote. Australia and Canada were among those joining the US in opposition. There were 52 abstentions, including Britain and Japan. After the vote, many delegates jumped to their feet and cheered. One reportedly called out in French: "Long live Palestine!"

Washington's UNESCO funding cut is a big financial blow to the organisation because the US has provided 22 per cent of its funding. In a letter to The Washington Post, UNESCO director Irina Bokova asked the US not to punish the organisation, saying it supported many causes important to US security interests — from Afghanistan to Iraq — and Palestine's membership should not be allowed to derail them. "We are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of US military forces," Ms Bokova said.

UNESCO member countries would have been in no doubt about the US position as Israel's closest ally. A law passed by the US congress in 1994 banned funding for any "affiliated organisation of the UN which grants full membership as a state to any organisation or group that does not have the internationally recognised attributes of statehood". The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday dismissing the UNESCO admission as a "unilateral Palestinian move which will bring no change on the ground but further removes the possibility for a peace agreement".

The US legal requirement to end the funding avoided any diplomatic difficulty for the Obama administration in how to deal with the situation. But the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear it will use its veto power in the UN Security Council to block any unilateral push for Palestinian statehood in the absence of a mutual agreement with Israel on borders and security. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the UNESCO vote was premature and undermined efforts directed at reaching a comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East.

The UNESCO vote to admit Palestine comes as violence increased on the border between Israel and Gaza. Over the past few days Palestinian militants have fired rockets into Israel, prompting Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.

Settlement expansion 'no punishment'
The Australian Online
Thursday, November 3, 2011

PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel's decision to accelerate settlement building was a fundamental right, not punishment for the Palestinians joining UNESCO. But US, European and Arab officials condemned the move as a blow to Middle East peace efforts. They also sharply criticised Israel's decision to suspend the transfer to the Palestinian Authority of duties it levies on imports to the territories.

"We build in Jerusalem because it is our right and our obligation; not as punishment but as a basic right of our people to build its eternal capital," Netanyahu told members of parliament. His inner cabinet decided on Tuesday to speed up construction of Jewish settlements in annexed Arab east Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank, a day after the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation accepted Palestine as a full member.

Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its "eternal, indivisible capital", including the city's eastern sector, which it annexed shortly after capturing it in the Six Day War of 1967 in a move never recognised by the international community. But the Palestinians demand east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state. "Jerusalem will never return to the state it was in on the eve of the Six Day War," Netanyahu told parliament, denying that the settlement plan could be construed as punitive.

But the decision to speed up settlement construction was described by a senior Israeli government official, who spoke to AFP on Tuesday, as "punishment after the vote at UNESCO." And the decision to speed up the building of the 2000 settlement homes was accompanied by a plan to "temporarily freeze the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority," the official said.

Every month, Israel transfers to the Palestinian Authority tens of millions of dollars in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports. The money constitutes a large percentage of the Palestinian budget. Israel has previously frozen the transfer of funds as a punitive measure in response to diplomatic or political developments viewed as harmful, prompting criticism.

Israel's top ally Washington led international calls for the Jewish state to abandon its decision to speed up settlement building on occupied territory in retaliation for Palestinian admission to the UN cultural organisation. "We are deeply disappointed by yesterday's announcement about accelerated housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "As we have said before, unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direction negotiations and they do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply concerned" by Israel's decision and "worried at the trajectory of developments" between Israel and the Palestinians and called on both to "refrain from provocations," said his spokesman Martin Nesirky. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Israel to backtrack on the settlement push. "We call on Israel to reverse this decision," she said.

Britain, France, Germany and Russia also individually condemned the moves, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague warning that the cash freeze was likely to backfire on the Jewish state by undermining the Palestinians' ability to keep order. "(It) is in no-one's interests, least of all Israel's, since it has direct implications for the Palestinian Authority's ability to maintain effective security in the West Bank," he said in a statement.

The Palestinians too roundly condemned the Israeli moves. "These measures are no more than collective punishment in violation of all international norms, conventions, agreements, and standards, against Palestinians for demonstrating their right to be represented within the UN and other international forums," Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's office said. "The Israeli decision to speed up settlement construction with the construction of 2000 new housing units is an Israeli decision to accelerate the destruction of the peace process," presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP. "And the freezing of funds is stealing money from the Palestinian people."

Same Day
Medical ships to test Israel blockade

TWO ships carrying medical aid and activists have set sail from Turkey in a new bid to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, pro-Palestinian activists have said. A statement issued by the Freedom Waves group said the mini-flotilla made up of one Irish ship and one Canadian ship had left Fethiye on Turkey's south coast yesterday afternoon and planned to arrive in Gaza tomorrow. The group said the two boats, the Canadian Tahrir and the Irish Saoirse were carrying 27 people, including journalists and crew members, along with $30,000 worth of medicines.

"Two civilian boats, the Canadian Tahrir (Liberation), and the Irish Saoirse (Freedom) … are currently in international waters making their way to the beleaguered Gaza Strip to challenge Israel's ongoing criminal blockade of the territory," the statement said. "We have the wind of public opinion at our back and in our sails, which strengthens our resolve and determination to challenge the illegal blockade of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants," the Canadian Boat to Gaza organizer Ehab Lotayef said.

Activists organised a major attempt to break Israel's blockade in May 2010, when a flotilla of ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara tried to sail to Gaza. Israeli naval commandos raided the flotilla, killing nine Turkish activists and sparking a diplomatic crisis that culminated earlier this year in Ankara expelling Israel's ambassador and suspending military ties with the Jewish state. A second flotilla, dubbed the Freedom Flotilla II, tried to reach Gaza in July, but several ships were sabotaged — which activists blamed on Israel — and the final group of boats was intercepted before arriving in Gaza.

The organisers of the latest flotilla said they had organised their effort in secret, in a bid to prevent Israeli interference. "The 'Freedom Waves to Gaza' organisers chose not to publicise the effort in advance given Israel's efforts to block and sabotage Freedom Flotilla II last July," the group said. David Heap on the Canadian ship said they faced "economic blackmail," and were forcibly boarded by the Greek Coast Guard en route but persisted into international waters. Also, 11th hour restrictions by port authorities at their departure meant that only one third of the assembled delegates and media were allowed to embark, he said in a statement released in Canada.

An Israeli armed forces spokeswoman said the navy "is prepared to prevent their ability to reach the Gaza Strip," without specifying how. "We understand that this is once again another provocation in a long line of provocations against the State of Israel," Avital Leibovitch told the media. She recalled that the UN-appointed Palmer committee, which investigated the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara, had ruled that the maritime blockade of Gaza was legal. Leibovitch said that Israel transferred to Gaza 300 trucks a day of supplies. "I fail to understand how two yachts can carry on board any supplies that would compete with the amount of supplies that are entering every day into Gaza," she said.

Israel has vigorously defended its right to maintain a blockade on Gaza, which it says is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the coastal territory.

Israel tests missile for Iran strike
The Australian Online
Additional reporting: The Times, AP
Friday, November 4, 2011

ISRAEL has test-launched a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Iran, amid claims Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking cabinet support for a military strike. The test, believed to have involved a long-range Jericho missile yesterday, came a week after Israeli warplanes practised a long-range bombing mission in Italy — prompting speculation that the cabinet is considering a pre-emptive strike before Iran can complete its first nuclear weapon.

A Whitehall source yesterday said Britain was reviewing its contingency planning for possible military action against Iran. This is thought to include the positioning of British naval ships and ways to keep the Gulf open should Iran retaliate against international oil shipments. The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to publish a detailed report next week about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

An Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu was working with Defence Minister Ehud Barak to win support from members of the cabinet who oppose attacking Iranian nuclear facilities, Haaretz newspaper reported. The report came after days of renewed public discussion among Israeli commentators about the possibility that the Jewish state would take unilateral military action against Iran. Haaretz said Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak had already scored a significant win by convincing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to throw his support behind a strike. But the newspaper cited the Israeli official as saying those opposed to an attack still held "a small advantage" in the cabinet. Reports said there was opposition from army and intelligence chiefs.

Yesterday's test drew a menacing response from the regime in Tehran. Major-General Hassan Fayrouz Abadi, the chief of staff, was quoted as saying the Islamic Republic would cause "serious damage" to the US and to Israel if it were attacked.

The Israeli media said last week that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak favoured a pre-emptive strike on Iran similar to that carried out on Iraq in 1981, when Saddam Hussein's fledgling reactor was bombed by Israeli jets. Israel did the same to a suspected Syrian reactor in 2007. Military analysts have warned that for any airstrike to have a chance of halting Iran's nuclear program, which is spread over a number of diverse sites — some built into mountainsides — a large strike force would be needed and heavy losses would be incurred. There would also be the risk of a long war with Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Both have been provided by Tehran with missiles capable of striking across Israel.

Mr Netanyahu has helped galvanise the West to apply pressure on Iran, but his campaign lost much of its urgency this year when Meir Dagan, the respected outgoing head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, said Iran was not as close to completing a bomb as was generally believed. This was partly because of the Stuxnet computer virus that disrupted its centrifuges, and which is thought to have been developed by the US and Israel. Mr Dagan said a military strike on Iran would be a "stupid idea".

The US, which like Israel has declined to rule out military action to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability, refused to be drawn on the Israeli media reports. "I'm not going to respond to that kind of speculation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "We remain focused on a diplomatic channel here, a diplomatic course in terms of dealing with Iran."

A poll showed the Israeli government would have support at home for a strike. The Dialog polling institute found 41 cent of 500 surveyed backed such an action while 39 per cent opposed the idea.

Extract: Israel frees six of 27 detained on ships
Sunday Mail online
Sunday, November 6, 2011

ISRAEL has freed six of 27 passengers and crew who were aboard two ships intercepted by its navy while trying to run the Jewish state's blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Commandos boarded the Irish-flagged Saoirse (Freedom) and the Canadian ship Tahrir (Arabic for Liberation) in international waters off Gaza on Friday before the navy escorted them to the port of Ashdod, the military said.

Interior ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told AFP the six released included an Israeli Arab, two Greek crewmen and three journalists — from Egypt, Spain and the United States. She said the remaining 21 people were still being held at a detention facility in Ramla near Tel Aviv, after questioning by immigration authorities. Asked when the 21 activists were expected to be freed, Hadad explained the deportation process requires them to see a judge, a process that would take at least 72 hours. At the end of the process, Israel would fly the activists back to their homelands, she said. Fourteen of the activists held by Israel are Irish, and the rest are from Canada, Scotland, Australia and the US.

Israel set to attack over Iran nuclear risk
The Australian
AFP, The Times
Monday, November 7, 2011

ISRAELI President Shimon Peres has warned that an attack on Iran was "more and more likely," ahead of tomorrow's release of a report by the UN nuclear watchdog, which is expected to say Tehran has tested nuclear triggering technology and modified ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads. Mr Peres told Israeli television's second channel: "The intelligence services of the different countries that are keeping an eye on (Iran) are worried and putting pressure on their leaders to warn that Iran is ready to obtain the nuclear weapon." "We must turn to these countries to ensure that they keep their commitments … this must be done, and there is a long list of options," Mr Peres declared.

In the past week, Israel has test-launched a nuclear-capable Jericho 3 missile, which can reach Iran. On Thursday, it completed a major civil defence drill in the Tel Aviv region aimed at simulating a response to conventional and non-conventional missile attacks. The drill fuelled speculation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pressing his military for a decision about when and how to strike Iran. Such a strike, say Israeli sources, would have to involve air, sea and even land forces on a devastating scale as there would be the opportunity for only one "hit". Even so, there is fear of retaliation by Iran's conventional, long-range Shihab missiles.

On Wednesday, Haaretz newspaper reported that Mr Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak were seeking to win cabinet support for a strike. Haaretz said no decision had yet been taken on any military strike, and a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear watchdog to be released tomorrow would have a "decisive effect" on the decision-making process. Previous IAEA assessments have centred on Iran's efforts to produce fissile material — uranium and plutonium — that can be for power generation and other peaceful uses, and also in a nuclear bomb. The update will focus on Iran's alleged efforts to put the radioactive material in a warhead and to develop missiles to carry them to a target.

Israeli experts have described the Iranian program as "alarming," and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said the report would prove "beyond doubt" its military aims. He hoped Iran would be targeted by a new series of international sanctions. Israeli sources said their latest evidence amounted to "a smoking gun" that Iran's nuclear program was designed to produce weapons rather than for civil purposes, as Tehran claims. The report is expected to signal a change in attitude by the IAEA, an independent body charged with monitoring nuclear programs and preventing proliferation that reports to the UN.

President Barack Obama, has said that the US and its allies would maintain "unprecedented pressure" on Tehran to prevent it acquiring weapons. President Nicolas Sarkozy said before last week's G20 summit that France would not stand idly by if Israel's existence were threatened.

Since the departure of the previous head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, the institution is said to have collected intelligence from agencies including the US British, Israeli, German and French services. "It's obvious the IAEA has no capability to challenge the cunning way the Iranians are concealing their nuclear program without the help of Western intelligence services," said an Israeli source.

Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes. Its Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday the IAEA report was based on "counterfeit" claims. "One can counterfeit money, but it remains counterfeit. These documents are like that."

Russians support nuclear Tehran
The Australian
Tony Halpin, Moscow, The Times
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

VLADIMIR Putin condemned the "arrogant" West yesterday as Russia hardened its opposition to an attack on Iran to stop it building a nuclear bomb. As tensions rose with NATO and Israel over the crisis, the Russian Prime Minister hit out after Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi addressed a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation in St Petersburg. "It really is just like you said — these are arrogant world powers," Mr Putin told Mr Salehi. Iran has observer status at the SCO, but is seeking membership. The organisation unites Russia, China and four former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that a military strike would be "a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences". He spoke after Israel's President Shimon Peres said an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was getting closer. "Military intervention only leads to a multiple rise in casualties and human suffering," Mr Lavrov said. "There can be no military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem."

The International Atomic Energy Agency is publishing its latest analysis of Iran's nuclear ambitions this week. The UN watchdog's report comes amid heightened fears Tehran has already gained the know-how to build a bomb, assisted by a former Soviet nuclear scientist. Vyacheslav Danilenko worked with the Physics Research Centre in Iran for at least five years from the mid-1990s on a precision explosives package, The Washington Post reported. Dr Danilenko reportedly admitted his links to Iran, but said he believed his work had been used for civilian projects.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and purely for energy purposes. The US, Europe and Israel have grown increasingly alarmed by evidence Iran is developing an atomic bomb. Iran's leading hardline cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, warned the IAEA not to publish a report that contained "lies by presenting them as documents".

Same Day
Sarko, Obama let fly at Israel PM

PARIS: French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar" in talks with US President Barack Obama, who then complained of having to deal with him daily. The private conversation, during last week's G20 summit in Cannes, was overheard by a number of journalists after it was inadvertently transmitted over a system used for translation, website Arret sur Images reported last night.

"I can't see him anymore, he's a liar," Mr Sarkozy said in French during the talks. Mr Obama replied in comments that were translated into French: "You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day."

A number of journalists contacted by Agence France-Presse confirmed hearing the remarks. Without providing quotes, the website said Mr Obama had also chastised Mr Sarkozy for not having informed the US of France's plans to vote in favour of Palestinian Authority membership of UNESCO. Journalists could hear the conversation after they were given translation devices for a press conference but told they would receive headphones later. Plugging their own headphones into the devices, they realised they could hear the French translation of the conversation between the two leaders.

The website quoted a number of journalists saying a group decision was made not to report the conversation as it was considered private and off-the-record. The story was carried on the websites of most major Israeli dailies, although not by Israel Hayom, which is considered close to Mr Netanyahu. The Prime Minister's office had no immediate reaction to the report and the foreign ministry refused to comment.

The nuclear reactor at Bushehr in Iran. Getty Images
Noose tightens on Iran nuke risk
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, November 10, 2011

IRAN faces dramatically increased sanctions — including calls to "collapse" its central bank — following a new report by the UN's nuclear watchdog. The International Atomic Energy Agency yesterday gave the strongest indication yet that Tehran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons. It reported that it had "credible evidence from member states" that Iran was pursuing activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device".

This contradicts Iran's repeated assertions that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes. The much-anticipated IAEA report says: "The agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program." It adds: "Since 2002, the agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organisations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the agency has regularly received new information." It says while some of the activities it has identified have civilian as well as military applications, "others are specific to nuclear weapons".

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected the report: "We do not accept any accusations by the IAEA, whose head unfortunately has no authority and just repeats what the US tells him to say." Iran's envoy to the IAEA said yesterday his country "will never compromise its legitimate rights" in pursuing its atomic program. "As a responsible state, the Islamic republic of Iran will never compromise its legitimate rights and will continue to comply with its commitments under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty," Ali Asghar Soltanieh said, as cited by the official IRNA news agency. "Iran will continue its peaceful nuclear activities. And just as many other previous claims were proven baseless, this time also they will not bear any results." In the US, the report sparked a new round of calls for much tougher sanctions, with several influential members of the US congress calling for a targeting of Iran's central bank.

Republican senator Mark Kirk said the US should bring about the "collapsing" of the bank. "If this is not a smoking gun, I don't know what is," Senator Kirk said. Republican senator Mark Rubio said: "The Obama administration should work with our allies and partners in Europe and Asia to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, including its central bank, to finally send a message that the Iranian nuclear weapons program is intolerable."

It appears that key findings of the report had been leaked to US and Israeli diplomats. In Israel, prior knowledge of the findings sparked a debate at the top of the government about whether Israel should carry out a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before Iran developed a weapon. The Israeli cabinet is reported to be split between those who favour a strike — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and those opposed. The highest-profile opponent of any strike is the immediate past head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, who said any such attack was "a foolish idea". "One has to weigh in what will happen the day after," he said.

Israel seriously considered a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities two years ago but was deterred by the US. There is a growing sense in Israel that the US is prepared to give tacit support to any such Israeli strike if Israel can argue that any such action is in self-defence. The major domestic consideration for Israel is how Iran would respond to any such strike — the most relevant factor is the likely response of Hezbollah, Iran's ally in Lebanon, and its arsenal of an estimated 40,000 missiles near the border with Israel.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in black, joins military officials for a graduation ceremony on Thursday.
US "bunker-busters" boost regional force against Iran
Weekend Australian
The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, November 12, 2011

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration has quietly drawn up plans to provide a key Persian Gulf ally with thousands of advanced "bunker-buster" bombs and other munitions, part of a stepped-up US effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran. The sale to the United Arab Emirates would vastly expand the capabilities of the country's air force to target fixed structures, which could include bunkers and tunnels — the kind of installations where Iran is believed to be developing weapons. The move represents one way the Obama administration intends to keep Iran in check, as it struggles to find adequate backing for new UN sanctions after a report by the nuclear watchdog concluded this week that Tehran had been developing the technology needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The oil-rich UAE traditionally has had strong trade relations with Iran. But the ruling al Nahyan family in Abu Dhabi, the capital, is seen as one of the most hawkish against Iran among the monarchies in the Persian Gulf, and the country's leadership has openly expressed fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Tehran has claimed sovereignty over three of the UAE's Persian Gulf islands, though it denies its nuclear program is for anything but peaceful purposes.

The proposed package for UAE is expected to be presented to Congress in the coming days and would authorize the sale of up to 4900 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) along with other weapons systems. The sale reflects the US focus on curbing Iranian influence as it pulls the last troops out of Iraq by year end. The US will have 40,000 troops in the region after the pullout.

The UN International Atomic Energy Agency in a report this week concluded Iran had researched developing nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials have acknowledged that international sanctions are hurting the economy and Tehran's ability to access the international financial system. Still, US officials acknowledged there are no signs this is causing Tehran to rethink its pursuit of nuclear technologies. With many US sanctions already in place and UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China opposed to new sanctions, the US has few other levers. The Obama administration is trying to build up the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Kuwait — as a unified counterweight to Iran.

In recent months, the US has begun holding a regular strategic dialogue with the GCC bloc. And the Pentagon has been trying to improve intelligence-sharing and military compatibility among the six countries. Tehran has responded to the recent IAEA report, and to discussions in Israel about the possibility of an attack on Iran, with harsh warnings. "Anybody who has an idea to attack Iran should be prepared to receive a strong slap and an iron fist," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday.

Syria suspended by Arab League
The Australian
AP, The Sunday Times
Monday, November 14, 2011

In a surprisingly sharp move, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria over the country's bloody crackdown on an eight-month uprising — a humiliating blow to a regime that prides itself as a bastion of Arab nationalism. Syria accused the Arab League of working to a US agenda, and hundreds of angry Syrians yesterday showered the Saudi embassy in Damascus with rocks before some broke in, sacking the premises. Protesters also broke through the gates of the Qatari embassy.

"Syria is a dear country for all of us and it pains us to make this decision," Qatar's Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim, said yesterday. "We hope there will be a brave move from Syria to stop the violence and begin a real dialogue toward real reform." Eighteen countries have backed the initiative. Only Syria itself, Lebanon and Yemen have opposed it. Iraq abstained. A statement read by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said the League had decided "to suspend Syrian delegations' activities in Arab League meetings" and to implement "economic and political sanctions" unless Damascus ends its part in the violence that has caused more than 3500 deaths since March. The 22-member Arab League will revisit the decision in a meeting on Thursday — a move that appeared to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad time to avert the suspension.

Yesterday's vote came after Damascus failed to carry out a November 2 peace deal brokered by the Arab League that called on Syria to halt attacks and pull tanks out of cities. Arab League diplomats said that if Syria did not adhere to its demands, the organisation would work to unify the disparate Syrian opposition into a coalition similar to that of Libya's National Transitional Council. A next step would be to recognise the opposition as the sole representative of the Syrian people in a move that would symbolically isolate Mr Assad even further.

Arab nations are eager to avoid seeing another leader toppled violently, as happened to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. An Arab League decision had paved the way for the UN-mandated no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Gaddafi, but Mr bin Jassim stressed international intervention was not on the agenda in Syria. "None of us is talking about this kind of decision," he said.

Syria slammed yesterday's vote as "illegal" under Arab League charter rules. Its Arab League envoy, Youssef Ahmed, said: "It was clear (the decision) was decided through a US order." He said Damascus was calling on the "armed opposition abroad to lay down arms, surrender, stop the violence and accept a national dialogue".

The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms. The rebellion has received the backing of Fadwa Suleiman, a popular Syrian actress, who declared her support for a "peaceful revolution". "I don't care what happens to me. Freedom has its price and we all have to chip in," Suleiman, an Alawite from the same minority sect as Mr Assad, told protesters. Few of her fellow celebrities in Syria have dared to voice backing for the uprising. In August Ali Ferzat, a 60- year-old political cartoonist and critic of the regime, was beaten by masked men who broke his hands. Ibrahim al-Qashoush, a singer who composed an anti-regime song, was found dead with his throat cut.

Mossad linked to Iran base blast
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Additional Reporting: AFP
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A US blogger who has frequently published Israeli security information yesterday claimed that the Mossad secret service and the Iranian dissident group Mujaheddin-e Khalq were jointly responsible for the blast at an Iranian missile base on Sunday in which 17 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were killed, including a senior commander. Richard Silverstein cited an Israeli "with extensive senior political and military experience" as the source of the information.

The blast at a military base 40km from Tehran was felt in the capital. The base reportedly stores long-range shahab missiles capable of hitting Israel. The senior officer killed in the explosion was General Hassan Tehrani Moqaddam, said to be the top commander in Iran's missile force. Sixteen people were wounded in the blast. Tehran residents said they thought it was an earthquake. A cloud of smoke hung over the base for hours. Iranian officials denied any sabotage and said the explosion was due to an accident while ammunition was being moved. A Revolutionary Guard spokesman said an investigation was under way into the cause of the explosion.

Recent reports of a possible Israeli airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities have raised tensions in the region. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday said he did not know the cause of the Iranian explosion "but there may be many more". Two years ago, a similar explosion at a military base 480km from Tehran where shahab missiles were stored killed two people. Press reports at the time said Mossad was behind that blast. There have been other unexplained explosions in Iran in recent years, and the Israeli spy organisation has been linked to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and the introduction of a computer virus, Stuxnet, which derailed Iran's program for enriching uranium for a period.

EU foreign ministers threatened yesterday to heap pressure on Iran over its nuclear program with "strong new restrictive measures", but were split on whether to rule out military action. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said military intervention was not an option, saying as he arrived for talks in Brussels: "We are not taking part in the discussion on military intervention. We believe such discussions are counter-productive and reject them."

But Britain said all options should remain on the table. Asked to comment on talk of a strike against Iran, Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "We are not considering that at the moment. We are not calling for or advocating military action. At the same time we say all options should remain on the table. Of course we will also look over the coming months to increase the peaceful legitimate pressure on Iran as part of our dual-track approach of being available for negotiations if they're real negotiations, but at the same time placing more pressure on Iran through sanctions."

Tehran has nuclear case to answer: IAEA
Weekend Australian
Saturday, November 19, 2011

VIENNA: The board of the UN's atomic watchdog was moving last night to approve a resolution of "deep and increasing concern" about Iran's nuclear activities in light of a damning new report from the Vienna-based body. The resolution, tabled at the International Atomic Energy Agency by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, says it is "essential for Iran and the agency to intensify their dialogue". It was also backed by 12 others, including Japan, Australia and Canada, meaning the text would be approved by at least a simple majority on the IAEA board.

Tehran, which says its nuclear program is peaceful, is being asked "to comply fully and without delay with its obligations under relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council". The resolution expresses "continuing support for a diplomatic solution, and calls on Iran to engage seriously and without preconditions in talks aimed at restoring international confidence".

To assuage Chinese and Russian misgivings, it sets no deadline for Iran to respond, requesting instead that IAEA head Yukiya Amano report to the IAEA board next March on Tehran's "implementation of this resolution". Mr Amano said earlier yesterday that he had written to Iran on November 2 proposing a "high-level" visit to Tehran, saying "clarifying all outstanding issues was in the interests of Iran, and other countries". "It is clear that Iran has a case to answer," he said.

Last week, the agency came the closest yet to accusing Iran outright of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, in a report immediately rejected by the Islamic republic as "baseless". But the report laid bare deep differences within the so-called P5+1 bloc dealing with the Iran question.

Washington, Paris and London jumped on the IAEA report as justification to increase pressure on Iran, already under four rounds of Security Council sanctions and additional US and EU restrictions. But Beijing, which relies heavily on Iranian oil imports, and Moscow, which also has close commercial ties and built Iran's only nuclear power plant, have been more cautious.

Protesters burn a picture of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. AP
Later same day
US warns Bashar Syria faces civil war because of violent crackdown
The Australian Online

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has joined a growing international chorus of concern that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's crackdown on pro-democracy protests may spark a civil war. Echoing fears voiced in Russia and Turkey, Mrs Clinton yesterday warned that "a very determined, well armed and eventually well financed opposition", led or influenced by Syrian army defectors, may end up fighting the Assad regime. Analysts have raised the spectre of a civil war spilling over Syria's borders into neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

In her interview with the US network NBC, Mrs Clinton stressed that the US prefers a peaceful protest movement against President Assad amid US concerns that acts of opposition violence can allow the Syrian leader to justify his crackdown. In a number of network interviews, Mrs Clinton conceded how little influence the US has over events in Syria as she backed initiatives by Turkey and the Arab League to press President Assad into ending the violence.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Thursday that an attack like the one on a Syrian intelligence base by army defectors on Wednesday could lead Syria into a civil war. The rebel Free Syrian Army, which claimed responsibility for the raid, boasts thousands of soldiers who defected from the army to join the eight-month revolt against President Assad.

Mrs Clinton's deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, disagreed saying Thursday: "We think that's an incorrect assessment." He added: "If Russia characterizes it as a civil war, we view that it is very much the Assad regime carrying out a campaign of violence, intimidation and repression against innocent protesters." Mrs Clinton also sought to put the blame for the violence squarely on the regime. "The way the Assad regime has responded has provoked people into taking up arms against them," she said.

In her interview with NBC, Mrs Clinton sought to dispel any idea that Washington would seek UN support for some sort of military action in Syria resembling the no-fly zone that helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. "There is no appetite for that kind of action vis-a-vis Syria," Mrs Clinton told the network. "Libya was a unique situation. And every place is, I think. But it's not applicable to Syria."

In an interview with the US network ABC, Mrs Clinton welcomed initiatives by the 22-member Arab League and neighbouring Turkey. "We recognised early on that we were not the voice most likely to be heeded by the Syrians," Mrs Clinton said, adding that the US had very little trade and other links with Damascus. "And so what we've encouraged, in addition to our statements, is a growing chorus that now consists of the Arab League and Turkey that cannot be ignored by Syria," she said.

In Rabat, Arab League leaders on Wednesday gave President Assad three days to halt his "bloody repression" of anti-regime protests the UN says has killed more than 3500 people, or risk sanctions. In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said "it is now the right time to stop this (Syrian) massacre, and therefore the Arab initiative is important". He added: "If it is not successful, of course there is always a risk of civil war or high level tension in Syria." Turkey ratcheted up the economic and political pressure on Syria on Tuesday, saying it would halt joint oil exploration with Damascus and threatening to stop electricity supplies over the regime's bloody crackdown on demonstrators.

One-phrase clue to ties in crisis
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

IT was a one-sentence announcement, but even within the crisis-ridden Middle East it had power. Jordan's official newsagency, Petra, announced that the leader of Jordan would be visiting the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. "King Abdullah II will on Monday visit Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the framework of Jordan's efforts to support the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestinian people," the agency said. King Abdullah was to be flown from Amman to Ramallah in the early hours of this morning, Australian time.

When the announcement was made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not been told. King Abdullah once had good relations with Israel but they have deteriorated as he has blamed Mr Netanyahu for the collapse of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Under Mr Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, peace talks were real, but have now crashed.

Israel blames Palestinians — saying they are trying everything, such as bids to become members of the UN, rather than direct negotiations. Palestinians blame Israel, saying that apart from a ten-month partial freeze on growth in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories the Netanyahu government's support for settlements makes direct talks impossible.

King Abdullah is a heavyweight in the Middle East — one of the few leaders in the Arab world whose access to the White House and EU leadership is as good as to Arab leaders. Last week he became the first Arab leader to call for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to resign because of the brutality of the crackdown in Syria. Jordan said the visit to West Bank was to pursue efforts "to achieve peace and the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders". The fact that King Abdullah neither informed the Israeli Prime Minister nor planned to meet him shows the crisis in the relationship.

Palestinian leaders hail their 'new partnership'
The Australian
Friday, November 25, 2011

CAIRO: Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal last night hailed a new era of partnership between their two rival movements at talks in Cairo aimed at cementing a stalled unity deal. Speaking to reporters after several hours of talks, the two leaders said they had managed to iron out their differences and turn over a new page in their strained relationship. "We want to assure our people and the Arab and Islamic world that we have turned a major new and real page in partnership on everything to do with the Palestinian nation," Mr Meshaal said. "There are no more differences between us now," added Mr Abbas, who heads Fatah. "We have agreed to work as partners with joint responsibility."

It was the first time the two men had held face-to-face talks since they met to sign a reconciliation deal in early May. Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed said the talks had focused on terms of the unity agreement and on how it should be implemented. "All the movements who signed the reconciliation agreement in May will be invited to put the final touches on it and start applying it on the ground, and to move forward towards ending the division, and elections," he said. They also discussed "the question of a truce … with Israel, and the question of popular resistance", he said.

Key issues on the agenda were a unified Palestinian strategy, hammering out an interim government, reforming the PLO and agreeing on a date for elections, officials said.

Further comments Saturday in The Weekend Australian

At the meeting, Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal approved a two-page document, saying they would establish a joint government after elections to be held in May. They pledged to resolve the issue of political prisoners held by each side "within days" and said they would put together a temporary cabinet of independents, to be agreed upon next month. "There will be a meeting in Cairo on December 20 of the PLO leadership and that of all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to restructure the leadership and the various bodies of the PLO," Damascus-based Hamas leader Izzat al-Rishq said. Two days later, the 13 factions which signed the May agreement would meet "to form a new government, which will organise the elections", he said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of the capital, Tehran, Iran.
Iranian nuke site blasts 'no accident'
The Australian
Sheera Frenkel, Jerusalem, The Times
Thursday, December 1, 2011

AN Iranian nuclear facility has been hit by a huge explosion, the second such blast in a month, prompting speculation that Tehran's military and atomic sites are under attack. Satellite imagery has confirmed a blast that rocked the city of Isfahan on Monday struck a uranium-enrichment facility. The images, seen by The Times, clearly show billowing smoke and destruction, negating the Iranians' claims yesterday that no such explosion had taken place. Israeli intelligence officials said there was "no doubt" the blast struck the nuclear facilities at Isfahan and that it was "no accident".

The explosion in Iran's third-largest city came as satellite images emerged of the damage caused by a blast at a military base outside Tehran two weeks ago that killed about 30 members of the Revolutionary Guard, including General Hassan Moghaddam, the head of the Iranian missile defence program. Iran claimed the Tehran explosion occurred during testing on a new weapons system designed to strike at Israel. But several Israeli officials have confirmed the blast was intentional and part of an effort to target Iran's nuclear weapons program.

On Monday, Isfahan residents reported a blast that shook tower blocks in the city at about 2.40pm, and of seeing a cloud of smoke rising over the nuclear facility on the edge of the city. "This caused damage to the facilities in Isfahan, particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials," a military intelligence source said. He would not confirm or deny Israel's involvement in the blast, saying there were "many different parties looking to sabotage, stop or coerce Iran into stopping its nuclear weapons program".

Iran went into frantic denial yesterday as news of the explosion at Isfahan emerged. Alireza Zaker-Isfahani, the city's governor, claimed the blast had been caused during a military exercise, but agencies in Tehran soon after issued a government denial of any explosion.

On Monday, Dan Meridor, the Israeli Intelligence Minister, said: "There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat." Israel's former director of national security, Major-General Giora Eiland, said on radio that the Isfahan blast was no accident. "There aren't many coincidences, and when there are so many events, there is probably some sort of guiding hand, though perhaps it's the hand of God," he said. A former Israeli intelligence official cited at least two other explosions that "successfully neutralised" Iranian bases associated with the Shahab-3, the missile that could be adapted to carry a nuclear warhead. "This is something everyone in the West wanted to see happen," he said.

Iran has repeatedly denied the existence of a nuclear weapons program, and strongly condemned the International Atomic Energy Agency's report last month that accused it of trying to build a nuclear weapon.

European envoys desert Tehran
The Australian
Alistair MacDonald and Farnaz Fassihi, London, The Wall Street Journal
Friday, December 2, 2011

THE diplomatic fallout for Iran from the raid on the British embassy in Tehran intensified across Europe yesterday as several countries recalled envoys after Britain closed its mission and expelled Iranian diplomats from London. London accused Iran's government of consenting to the storming of the embassy the day before.

Iran last night released 11 hardline protesters detained for storming the embassy, the semi-official Fars news agency said. There was no immediate explanation for the release. Under Iranian law, damaging property carries a prison term of up to three years. It could, however, indicate the 11 have high-level protection from circles within the Iranian establishment.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Iranian diplomats have 48 hours to leave the UK. He had held off from making the announcement until all British staff had left Iran, for fear of further reprisals. Other countries are expected to act on Britain's behalf in Iran. "If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning embassy here," he told Parliament. Other European nations called in Iran's ambassadors to complain about the attack, and the EU looked set to add close to 200 Iranian companies and individuals to its sanctions list. But the EU is split over whether to press ahead with an Iranian oil-import embargo as some cash-strapped nations complained it would raise their oil costs.

On Wednesday, about 200 protesters belonging to the plainclothes Basij militia stormed the British Embassy and its residence compound in Tehran, vandalizing the property and causing significant damage. Basij members later issued a statement saying the group would soon hold a celebration to mark the end of diplomatic relations with Britain.

Mr Hague accused the Iranian government of having a hand in the invasion, in which the British say diplomatic homes and the embassy were looted and vandalized and that the main embassy office building was set on fire. "The idea that the Iranian authorities could not have protected our embassy or that this assault could have taken place without some degree of regime consent is fanciful," he said. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, said the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London was "hasty and defensive." Iranian lawmakers stood up in yesterday's parliamentary session, throwing their fists in the air and chanting "Death to Britain."

London was actively encouraging allies to recall diplomats and summon Iranian ambassadors, said a person familiar with the matter. Norway had "temporarily" closed its embassy in Tehran, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry said. Sweden and France said they had called in Iran's ambassadors, and Germany, France and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors to Tehran.

Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi planned to summon the Iranian ambassador and consult with EU allies on whether to close the Italian Embassy in Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Italy, though, is among a number of EU nations, including Ireland, Greece and Cyprus, which have expressed reservations about a proposed oil embargo, European diplomats said. The embargo would be an unprecedented step for Europe, one detractors think could hurt their own economies.

Proponents had hoped that an official communique from an EU meeting last night would include agreement to start work on a possible oil embargo. However this appeared unlikely. The EU, though, is still expected to threaten Iran with future measures against its banking, shipping and energy sectors. Reactions to the embassy incident varied in Iran, with the Foreign Ministry expressing regrets about the security of diplomats being compromised while many politicians said the action was justified.


Later same day
Israel rules out Iran strike - for now
The Australian Online

ISRAELI Defence Minister Ehud Barak ruled out a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities "for the moment," in remarks to public radio, but said that the Jewish state would keep all options open. "We have no intention of acting for the moment… We should not engage in war when it is not necessary, but there may come a time or another when we are forced to face tests," Barak said. "Our position has not changed on three points: a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, we are determined to stop that, and all options are on the table," he added.

Israel and much of the international community fear that Iran's nuclear programme masks a drive for a weapons capability. Tehran denies any such ambition and says the programme is for peaceful civilian energy and medical purposes only. Israel has pushed Washington and the EU for tough sanctions against Tehran, but warned that it would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, and that military action to stop the programme remained an option.

Barak said he was confident that military action against Iran would not be devastating for Israel. "War is not a picnic, but if Israel is forced to act, we won't have 50,000, 5000 or even 500 dead, so long as people stay in their homes," he said, noting that rockets fired at Israel by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War had not killed a single Israeli. Asked about potential differences between the United States and Israel on tactics to stop Iranian nuclear development, Barak stressed that the Jewish state would ultimately take the decisions it thought best. "It must be understood that Israel is sovereign. The government, the army and the security services are the only ones responsible for the security and the existence of Israel," he said.

Barak declined to comment on what was behind at least two explosions in Iranian cities in recent weeks, only one of which has been confirmed by Iranian authorities. "Anything that sets back the Iranian nuclear programme, whether it is accidental or the product of other methods, is welcome," he said, refusing to say whether Israeli forces had any role in the incidents.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reiterated his contention that Iran is sufficiently far from having nuclear weapons, and emphasised his objection to a military strike at this timepoint. "The military option should be the last alternative," he said in an interview broadcast on Israel's private-run Channel 2. "All other alternatives should be realised before entering a conflict you know how will begin, but have no way of predicting all the aspects of its continuation."

In remarks made public immediately after stepping down as head of the Mossad in January, Dagan estimated Iran would not have a nuclear weapon before 2015. Today evaluated that the world would have sufficient time to respond, if and when Tehran hits the final plateau of achieving nuclear military capability. "The Iranians, to this point, have walked this route very carefully," Dagan said. "When they (Iran) break into the final stage" of developing a nuclear weapon, "they will enter a deep dispute with the international community, and therefore I think we will have sufficient advance notice. In this timetable, we will have enough time to reach an extreme decision of employing military force."

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, last month warned it had "credible" information that Iran was carrying out "activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device." According to the report, dated November 8, Iran has produced 4922kg, nearly five tonnes, of uranium enriched to 3.5 per cent, as well as 73.7kg of uranium enriched to around 20 per cent.

On Monday, Brigadier General Itai Brun, head of research for Israeli military intelligence, told lawmakers he estimated that Iran was "using 6000 centrifuges regularly, out of 8000 installed." "Until today, they have managed to accumulate approximately 50 tonnes of low enriched uranium, and a bit less than 100 kilos of 20 percent enriched uranium," he said. Brun said Iran would need at least 220kg of 20 per cent enriched uranium if it decided on a drive for the much higher levels of enrichment necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.

Israel is widely reported to have the Middle East's sole but undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Iran's military said it had shot down a US Army drone inside its territory near the Afghan and Pakistani borders. AP
Iran threatens to retaliate for US drone shot down within its territory
The Australian Online
Monday, December 5, 2011

IRAN'S military said it had shot down a US Army drone inside its territory near the Afghan and Pakistani borders, and threatened to retaliate for the violation, Iranian media reported. The NATO-led military force in Afghanistan said the drone reportedly shot down by Iran "may" belong to the United States. "The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week," the International Security Assistance Force said. "The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status," the statement said without elaborating on the type of drone.

Iran's Al-Alam Arabic language satellite channel, quoting a military source in Iran's joint chiefs of staff, said late Sunday that a RQ-170 unmanned aerial vehicle was shot down "a few hours ago." The Fars news agency, which has close ties to the Revolutionary Guards responsible for Iran's air defence and ballistic missile systems, said the drone had made an incursion into Iran's eastern airspace. "Our air defence and electronic warfare units managed to identify and shoot down an advanced unmanned spy aircraft — an RQ-170 — after it briefly violated the eastern border territory," Fars said. Quoting an unnamed military source, Fars said the drone "was downed with slight damage." "It is now under the control of our forces." The source warned that Iran's armed response would "not be limited to our country's borders" for the "blatant territorial violation."

No images of the drone said to have been shot down were immediately published by any of the media carrying the reports. The RQ-170 Sentinel is a high-altitude reconnaissance drone whose existence was revealed in 2009 by specialised reviews and later confirmed by the US Air Force in 2010.

In January, Iran announced that its forces had downed two US drones after they violated Iranian-controlled airspace. It said it would put the aircraft on display to the public, but there has been no indication it ever did so. In June, Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Guards' aerospace unit, said Iran had shown Russian experts the US drones in its possession. "Russian experts requested to see these drones and they looked at both the downed drones and the models made by the Guards through reverse engineering," he said. Hajizadeh did not specify how many US drones were shown nor give any details of the copies Iran was said to have made of the aircraft.

The US military and the CIA routinely use drones to monitor military activity in the region. They have also reportedly used them to launch missile strikes in Yemen as well as in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt.

The latest report comes as relations between Pakistan and the US have hit a new low after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an air strike near the Afghan-Pakistani border last month, prompting Pakistan to boycott Monday's Bonn conference on Afghanistan's future. It also comes at a time of heightened political tension over Iran's nuclear programme, with speculation rife that Israel is mulling air strikes against Iranian atomic facilities, with or without US backing. Iranian officials and Guards commanders, who regularly boast about Tehran's military capabilities, have warned against any such military action targeting the Islamic republic.

Syrian crisis forces Hamas to relocate
The Australian
Sheera Frenkel, Jerusalem, The Times
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

GROWING violence in Syria is forcing Hamas to begin moving its headquarters out of Damascus, diplomats and Palestinian officials said yesterday. The Palestinian militant movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, moved its exiled leadership from Jordan to Syria in 1999 but is now looking for a new base while moving many of its officials back to the coastal Gaza Strip.

It is partly motivated by security reasons but also because it no longer wants to be associated with the host government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is becoming increasingly isolated in the Arab world. "They are looking to re-establish themselves somewhere with stability, yes, but where they will be protected, diplomatically and militarily, from Israel. Egypt could be that, but the truth is that they are waiting to see," one Palestinian official said.

Hamas has angered Syria by refusing to hold rallies in support of the Assad regime or sign a statement backed by other Palestinian groups, in support of the President. Human rights groups say 4000 people have died in the uprising against Mr Assad. Last month, the Arab League announced it was suspending Syria's membership of the organisation. In Gaza, Hamas officials denied they were looking to leave Syria. "There is no change," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. However, diplomats in Syria have reported that dozens of Hamas operatives have left the country in recent months.

"The top-level guys will remain until the (very end) of Syria, because they must. But they see the writing on the wall," said one Hamas official in Egypt. Hamas activists on the move were those responsible for raising funds and for the political structure, he said. Many have moved back to Gaza, Sudan and Doha. Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader in exile, has remained in Damascus where he has been based since a dispute with Jordan in 1999, when it accused the Palestinian group of carrying out illegal activities on its soil.

Iran has joined Syria in applying pressure on Hamas not to leave the country, including threats to cut off financial support and arms, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

Violence ' It's nothing to do with me: Assad
The Australian
Thursday, December 8, 2011

WASHINGTON: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denies he is responsible for the killing of thousands of protesters, telling a US television network he was not in charge of the forces behind the crackdown. In a rare interview, Mr Assad spoke to US-based ABC News journalist Barbara Walters to defend himself amid global condemnation of the nine-month-old crackdown, which the UN says has killed 4000 people. The interview was expected to air overnight but a reporter for the network, seeking US reaction at a State Department briefing, quoted Mr Assad as saying: "I'm President. I don't own the country, so they're not my forces. There's a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference."

Reacting to the excerpt, State Department spokesman Mark Toner criticised Mr Assad, saying he had had multiple opportunities to end the violence. "I find it ludicrous that he is attempting to hide behind some sort of shell game (and) claim that he doesn't exercise authority in his own country," Mr Toner said. "There's just no indication that he's doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement."

Mr Assad's family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades. His brother, Lieutenant Colonel Maher al-Assad, heads the army's Fourth Division, which oversees the capital as well as the elite Republican Guard. Syria has come under growing pressure from the US, European Union, Arab League and non-Arab Turkey to stop the violence. The Arab League has threatened to impose new sanctions unless Syria lets in monitors. In a letter late on Monday, Mr Assad's regime said it would allow monitors, but only if conditions were met.

The US and France sent their ambassadors back to Syria, hoping they would help shed light on the violence and show solidarity with protesters after earlier being pulled out because of security concerns. Syria accuses "terrorist groups" of fuelling the unrest."

Israel fences off Africa migrants
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Tuesday, December 13, 2011

THE Israeli government yesterday adopted an emergency plan to turn back the tide of African migrant workers crossing into Israel, the one country with a Western economy Africans can reach on foot. Warning that the number of illegal immigrants could reach 100,000 a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the influx posed an economic, social and security threat to the country. "Entire populations are starting to move and if we don't act to stop this we will be washed away. It's no longer a choice but a necessity." Israel's population is about seven million.

The government decided to trim the budget of all ministries by 2 per cent to fund a $167 million program for the completion of a fence along the 193km border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, which migrants must cross to reach Israel, and the construction of large detention facilities to temporarily house those who make it across. Mr Netanyahu said he would fly to Africa to discuss the return of migrants to their countries of origin with government leaders in several states. His trip is expected to take place in three months. Most of the migrants come from Sudan and Eritrea but Mr Netanyahu said almost all were labour migrants and not genuine refugees. "Refugees are a small portion of this stream. We will continue to look after them. But we have no obligation to receive illegal migrants."

There are presently more than 50,000 illegal migrants in the country and arriving at the rate of about 2000 a month, Israeli officials say. They make the arduous trip across the Sinai desert with the aid of Bedouin guides. The migrants have come to form sizeable blocks in cities in southern Israel and in the poorest sections of Tel Aviv. Many residents and local officials have protested their presence, citing increased crime and sanitation problems. The Israeli cabinet also decided to impose fines of up to $20,000 on businesses employing illegal immigrants. "If need be, we'll shut down these enterprises so that the enterprise we call 'the State of Israel' won't be shut down," said Mr Netanyahu.

Israel has a detention centre not far from the Sinai border which holds some 2000 infiltrators. It will be tripled in size. The border fence was initially designed mainly to prevent terrorists from crossing into Israel from Egyptian territory but the prevention of massive illegal immigration has come to be seen as a task of no less urgency.

Jewish settlers storm Israeli base
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, December 15, 2011

THE Israeli army has been shocked by the ferocity of the latest attack by Jewish settlers on one of its army bases. Dozens of settlers stormed the Ephraim Brigade's base in the West Bank, destroying equipment and vehicles and setting fire to parts of it. Last month, settlers attacked another army base and soldiers on patrol. The chief of the central command of the Israeli Defence Forces, Major General Avi Mizrahi, said yesterday: "I have not seen such hatred of Jews towards soldiers during my 30 years of service." He expressed frustration at the treatment of settlers who commit violence. "The entire circle has to be closed, from the police to the prosecution," he said. "If yesterday I had arrested 20 people here, it is clear to you that they would have been released the next morning."

In another act yesterday, a mosque in Jerusalem was set on fire. Two months ago, a mosque in the north of Israel was burnt. The attacks appear to be part of a rising "price tag" campaign in which Jewish extremists attack Israeli soldiers or Palestinians if the army tries to dismantle the illegal outposts. Many of the outposts have been built on private Palestinian land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday called an emergency meeting of security officials. "We need to stop bad things when they are small, and this is small and we will stop it now," he said later. "Nobody has any justification or excuse for not obeying the law." But he was criticised in the Israeli media for not having acted earlier against settler violence. Leading commentator Alex Fishman wrote in the largest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "What a show of hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness was staged for us yesterday by … Netanyahu. "Suddenly he discovered that gangs of law-breaking young people — including minors — were terrorising not only the Palestinian population but also the police and army. Suddenly he realised these terrorists were being supervised by fundamentalist religious leaders who do not recognise the State of Israel and its laws. … The fact that he and his ilk in Israel's governments and Knesset have given these people ideological backing — either tacitly or openly — and castrated the operational branch to the point of paralysis, that is something he has forgotten."

Human rights groups said there had been a dramatic rise in the number of Palestinian homes and water wells destroyed. Based on UN figures, the 20 groups said there had been a 160 per cent increase in attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians and their property since 2009. They said an estimated 1000 Palestinians had had their homes destroyed this year at the same time as 4000 more houses for settlers had been approved by Israel. They estimated 10,000 Palestinian olive trees had been damaged or destroyed.

Meanwhile, three of Israel's leading rabbis called for the IDF's rules to be modified so soldiers could fire live rounds at people throwing rocks and that settlers be armed with more weapons. Israel's army radio reported that when one of the rabbis, Nahum Rabinowitz, was asked whether he was concerned such changes would apply to Jewish rock throwers, he laughed.

Edgy Israel forms 'Iran command'
The Australian
Uzi Mahnaimi, The Sunday Times
Monday, December 19, 2011

ISRAEL has announced the formation of an "Iran command" to control special forces operations inside Iran amid growing speculation that a military attack on the Islamic republic is coming. The unusual announcement — and the appointment of a general with special operations experience — is, says an Israeli source, "the most alarming indication so far that the moment of truth with Iran has arrived". It followed another mysterious explosion last weekend at an Iranian factory in which North Korean experts are believed to have been producing high-grade metal for ballistic missiles.

The Israeli army announced that Major General Shai Avital, a veteran of long-range special operations, would head the unit. Avital retired nine years ago, but was persuaded to return to service as the Iran issue reached a critical point.

Israel is acting after reports that Iran is about to move its uranium-enrichment facilities into a well-protected underground site near the city of Qom. "Our vulnerability in the nuclear area has reached the minimum level," the Iranian Brigadier-General Gholamreza Jalali said last week in remarks reported by the country's semi-official Mehr news agency. "If circumstances require it, the uranium-enrichment facilities will be relocated to safer places." An Israeli defence source said: "Once that happens, any military attack will be much more difficult." For now, Iran still appears to be vulnerable.

A series of explosions in recent weeks indicates that a clandestine war has already begun. Last weekend's blast closed a new factory making metal for ballistic missiles and centrifuges used in enrichment. The local governor said 12 staff were killed and the same number injured in the explosion
at the Ghadir-e Yazd plant.

Israel frees 550 in prison swap deal
The Australian
Tuesday, December 20, 2011

JERUSALEM: Israel yesterday freed 550 Palestinian prisoners, completing the second phase of a deal that led to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit's release in October. Officials and witnesses in the West Bank city of Ramallah said the main contingent of freed prisoners entered the city, where thousands of well-wishers awaited them at the Palestinian presidential headquarters, on a fleet of 12 buses early yesterday. The release came as Israel announced it would publish tenders for the construction of more than 1000 housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

A small group of 41 released prisoners crossed at about the same time into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, where about 3000 jubilant supporters gathered at the border. An Israeli prison official said another two were taken to the border with neighbouring Jordan and two more were released at Atarot in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. "The International Red Cross Committee assisted in the process of conveying the prisoners," the Israeli military said in an official statement. It confirmed that 505 prisoners were transferred to the West Bank and 41 to the Gaza Strip, with the remaining four taken to Jordan and east Jerusalem.

According to an Israeli ministry website, the housing tenders are for 500 new units in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Homa, and more than 500 in two West Bank settlements — 348 in Beitar Ilit near Bethlehem, and 180 in Givat Ze'ev northwest of Jerusalem. The tenders were part of a package of nearly 6000 housing units which would be built across Israel and the West Bank, the ministry said. The housing move was angrily denounced by the Palestinians. "The Palestinian Authority strongly condemns the Israeli government's decision to build a thousand new housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank," said negotiator Saeb Erakat. "This new colonial decision by the Israeli government, which we condemn, undermines efforts to establish peace in the region," presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

One of the Jerusalem residents freed was Salah Hamuri, a French-Palestinian who was convicted of plotting to assassinate a Jewish religious leader and had been due to complete his seven-year sentence in March. Among the 550 were six women and 55 minors aged 14 to 17, according to UN children's rights agency UNICEF, which welcomed the youngsters' release. Unlike in the first stage of the deal, which saw the release in October of 477 Palestinians including hundreds serving life for killing Israelis, yesterday's operation did not include anyone "with blood on their hands", officials on both sides said.

The flag-waving crowd in Ramallah filled the Muqataa presidential compound and spilled out into surrounding streets as Palestinian officials welcomed the returnees, but Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was not present as he was travelling to Turkey. The list of prisoner names was published last week, and two appeals to delay the deal lodged by Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks were rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court, the second just hours before the release.

Iraq's Sunni vice President Tareq al-Hashemi Photo: REUTERS
Iraq tense as Sunni leader held
The Australian
Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BAGHDAD: Iraq issued an arrest warrant for its Sunni Vice-President on anti-terror charges yesterday, deepening a crisis that one leader warned threatened the unity government, just a day after US troops left. The ruling coalition, made up of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions, was assembled with US help almost one year ago after the long and acrimonious government formation process that followed the deadlocked March 2010 elections.

Less than a year after the cabinet was formed, Iraq's fragile political truce appeared to be unravelling, with the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc boycotting parliament and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki calling for the sacking of one his deputies, a Sunni who branded his government a "dictatorship". "According to article four of the anti-terrorism law, an arrest warrant has been issued against Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi and it is signed by five judges," Major General Kamal Hussein, a senior interior ministry official, told a news conference. The judicial committee that issued the warrant earlier barred Mr Hashemi from leaving the country. Earlier yesterday, he was briefly escorted off a plane at Baghdad airport bound for the Kurdish region.

White House spokesman Jay Carney voiced concerns after the warrant was issued. "We're talking to all of the parties and have expressed our concern regarding these developments," he said. "We're urging all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process."

State broadcaster al-Iraqiya TV aired footage showing what the interior ministry said were Mr Hashemi's bodyguards confessing to planning and carrying out terror attacks, and receiving funding and support from Mr Hashemi. At least 13 of Mr Hashemi's bodyguards have been detained in recent weeks.

Mr Hashemi's Iraqiya bloc, meanwhile, said it would boycott cabinet to protest against Mr Maliki's "dictatorship", after earlier saying it was suspending its participation in parliament. "Iraqiya has decided today to boycott sessions of cabinet," said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who Mr Maliki said over the weekend should be sacked. "This decision is based on the deterioration of the political process, and to ensure that the country will not head towards a catastrophe if Maliki's dictatorship continues." Iraqiya, which holds 82 seats in the 325-member parliament and controls nine ministerial posts, has not pulled out of the national unity government.

Massud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, earlier called for urgent talks to prevent the "collapse" of the country's national unity government, warning "the situation is headed towards deep crisis". "The ruling partnership has become threatened," Mr Barzani said.

The political party loyal to anti-US Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr lamented the timing of the crisis, which comes after US troops completed their withdrawal from the country. "We do not want to send any wrong message to the world, after the withdrawal of the occupying forces, that the one who was controlling the issues in Iraq was the occupier," said Baha al-Araji, head of the Sadrist bloc.

UN members vent over US role in Palestinian standoff
The Australian
Thursday, December 22, 2011

NEW YORK: Fourteen frustrated members of the UN Security Council pointed a finger at the US yesterday for blocking any condemnation of Israel's accelerated settlement construction in Palestinian territory. In a move that Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin called historic, diplomats from almost all regional blocs represented on the council stepped to the microphone after closed council consultations on the Middle East to condemn the lack of progress towards a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Churkin, the council president, said the frustration over the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian talks spilled out in statements from the four EU members, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab group and the group of emerging powers that included India, Brazil and South Africa. Clearly referring to the US, Mr Churkin said dismissively that one delegation believed things would miraculously sort themselves out on their own. "The call for bilateral negotiations without preconditions would seem a normal thing to ask for," he said. But Mr Churkin said the Palestinians were overwhelmed militarily and in every other way by the Israelis and without preconditions they would not get a fair deal in negotiations.

The diplomats — including key US allies in Europe — also criticised the council's failure to take action against the escalating violence by Israeli settlers and urged a speedy resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Britain's UN ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, also speaking for France, Germany and Portugal, said: "Israel's security and the realisation of the Palestinians' right to statehood are not opposing goals. On the contrary, they are mutually reinforcing objectives. But they will not be achieved while settlement building and settler violence continues."

While the US was not mentioned by name, the diplomats' anger was clearly directed at Washington, which vetoed a resolution in February backed by the 14 other members that would have demanded an immediate halt to all settlement building. The Obama administration has also promised to veto any resolution supporting Palestine's bid to become the 194th member of the UN.

Political crisis grips Iraq as death toll from wave of bombings hits 67
The Australian Online
Friday, December 23, 2011

A WAVE of attacks across Iraq has killed 67 people as the country faced a political crisis, with its vice-president accused of running death squads and the prime minister warning he could break off power-sharing. Apparently co-ordinated blasts in the capital and the slaughter of a family of five in restive Diyala province were the first major sign of violence in a row that has threatened Iraq's fragile political truce and heightened sectarian tensions just days after US forces completed their withdrawal.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed that the bombers would not be allowed to have any impact on the political process, while parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi condemned the attacks, which he said "threaten national unity". "The timing of these crimes and their locations confirm once again to any doubters the political nature of the goals that those criminals want to achieve," Mr Maliki said in a statement. "The criminals and those who stand behind them will not succeed in changing events or the political process, or in escaping punishment."

Parliament called an urgent meeting of political leaders for Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and rest. Meanwhile, US army chief of staff General Ray Odierno, former head of US forces in Iraq, met with Mr Maliki for talks on military co-operation, a statement from the prime minister's office said, without elaborating.

More than a dozen Baghdad attacks, the deadliest in more than four months, mostly targeted Shi'ite neighbourhoods and coincided with the morning rush hour on Thursday. Health ministry spokesman Ziad Tariq put the toll at 60 dead and 183 wounded, while an interior ministry official said 63 people were killed and 194 wounded.

The deadliest single attack involved a car bomb driven by a suicide attacker which blew up at the offices of the anti-corruption agency, killing 23 people, including five senior investigators, the interior ministry official said. Twin roadside bombs and a car bomb, struck construction workers in the Allawi neighbourhood, central Baghdad, killing 16. And separate evening attacks at a market and a cafe killed three, Mr Tariq said.

Helicopters could be heard hovering overhead at many of the blast sites and emergency response vehicles rushed to the scene of attacks, while tightened security at checkpoints worsened Baghdad's already choking traffic. "They didn't target any vital institutions or security positions," Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim Atta said. "They targeted children's schools, day workers, the anti-corruption agency." Mr Atta, who said there had been a dozen attacks across the city, said it was "too early to say" who was behind the violence.

The attacks struck in the Allawi, Bab al-Muatham and Karrada districts of central Baghdad; Adhamiyah, Shuala and Shaab in the north, Jadriyah in the east, Ghazaliyah in the west and Al-Amil and Dura in the south, officials said. A family of five — parents, their two daughters and a son — were gunned down by insurgents in a suburb of the Diyala provincial capital Baquba, north of Baghdad, early on Thursday, medical and security officials said. The father and son were both members of the anti-al-Qaeda Sunni tribal militia known as the Sahwa, which sided with the US military from late-2006, helping to turn the tide of the insurgency. And in the main northern city of Mosul, a gun attack on an army checkpoint left two soldiers dead, a police officer said.

Thursday's violence was the worst since August 15, when 74 people were killed in a series of attacks across 17 Iraqi cities.

Mainstream Israelis have rallied around Tanya Rosenblit
Like Rosa Parks, Tanya won't bow down to
discrimination by giving up her seat on bus
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, December 24, 2011

SHE had no intention of emulating Rosa Parks when she set out to hail a bus to Jerusalem last weekend, but by Tuesday evening Tanya Rosenblit had become a defiant symbol around whom most of Israel's population was rallying.

Rosenblit, who lives in the port city of Ashdod, had boarded a public bus that serves mainly the black-clad haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jewish community. Citing the requirements of "modesty", the haredim, who constitute 8 per cent of Israel's Jewish population, had in the past attempted to impose separation of the sexes on buses connecting haredi communities, with women sitting at the back.

The Supreme Court termed this illegal but government authorities agreed to let the practice continue as long as it was on a voluntary basis and was confined to selected routes serving an almost exclusively haredi population.

The bus driver who stopped for Rosenblit explained to her that secular women didn't usually travel on this line. Rosenblit, a 28-year-old journalist who was in a hurry, nevertheless mounted the bus and sat behind the driver. Haredi men sitting behind looked at her askance but made no protest. At the second stop, however, a haredi man who boarded stopped inside the door and asked her to move to the back.

"No, I won't," she said.

After a brief exchange she tuned out, putting on earphones and listening to music. She was, however, able to hear the man when he shouted that she was impudent. At that point, Rosenblit took off the earphones and stated her case. "There's no cause for behaving this way to anyone, certainly not to women. I made no provocation. I'm dressed modestly. I bought a ticket like you did. You won't tell me where to sit only because I'm a woman. I'll sit where I please." She held her ground despite a menacing crowd of haredi men who had formed outside and were raising "an almighty ruckus", as she put it later.

The man continued to block the door and said he would do so until the woman moved. After a stand-off lasting a half hour, the driver called the police. A policeman attempted first to persuade the man to desist. When that did not work, he asked Rosenblit if she would mind, out of respect for "their ways", moving to the back.

She refused. At that point, the haredi man in the doorway, seeing her standing up to the police, got off and the bus continued.

Rosenblit related the incident on her Facebook page and within hours it was picked up by the media and became the big story in the country. Ministers wanted to be photographed with her and the press compared her to Rosa Parks, a black woman whose refusal to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 was a landmark in the American civil rights movement.

In recent years, and particularly recent months, extremists in the haredi community have attempted to impose an increasingly fundamentalist lifestyle within their own sector, at one point even putting a curtain down one of the streets in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood to keep males and females separated during a festival. This tendency has begun to spill out into the broader community.

Haredim serving in the army — a small but growing number — and some fundamentalist-influenced religious soldiers have begun to walk out of military ceremonies if women sing, in the belief that it is forbidden for religious men to hear women sing.

In Jerusalem, where haredim are almost one-third of the Jewish population, advertisers have learned to display women on posters, if at all, in demure dress even in largely secular neighbourhoods if they don't want their billboards defaced.

This phenomenon has aroused discomfort and anger among the secular population but resentment lacked a spark to ignite it. Rosenblit may now have provided it. Her Facebook report drew hundreds of responses. Within a day, one group announced that a nationwide protest would be held on January 1 when women and men in groups of 10 would board buses serving haredi communities and sit together in the front. "Our mistake is that we've been quiet until now," one organiser said. "We don't intend to be any more."

In the Knesset, Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni said that even if Rosenblit had not intended to become a symbol, "there's no doubt that her perseverance represents the need of everyone concerned about Israel's character to fight and not give up".

Culture Minister Limor Livnat invited Rosenblit to speak before an inter-ministerial committee formulating a plan for dealing with the exclusion of women from the public domain. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the incident not only to condemn those who wanted to keep women in the shadows but to call for mutual respect between all sectors, including Arabs and Jews, religious and secular.

Even Israel's chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, sided with Rosenblit. "We (the ultra-Orthodox) don't have the authority to force our ideas on others," he said.

Mourners bow in prayer at the mass funeral in Damascus for 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings
that targeted intelligence agency compounds. AP
Mass funeral turns into rally for Assad
The Australian
Monday, December 26, 2011

DAMASCUS: Tens of thousands of Syrians flocked to the ancient Omayyad Mosque in Damascus yesterday for the funeral of 44 people killed by suicide bombers, turning the occasion into a gigantic show of support for the embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Charge and counter-charge swirled over who was behind the attacks last Friday night. The United Nations voiced grave concern over the bombings, which marked an ominous step up in the violence that has rocked the Arab nation for nine months, claiming at least 5000 lives.

Thousands of people gathered to pay homage to the victims, waving the Syrian flag and kneeling in group prayer behind the coffins, which also were draped in the red, black and white colours of the flag. State television broadcast the funeral live. The crowd appeared to be supporters of Mr Assad, facing an uprising against his regime. They chanted slogans of support, saying the victims were "martyrs" and shouting, "We want no one but Assad."

Friday's explosions, for which no group has claimed responsibility, marked the first appearance of suicide bombers in the uprising. Analysts warned that it could be the start of a dangerous phase, where armed militants could try to create chaos for their own interests. The Syrian regime blamed elements of al-Qa'ida for the attacks, which occurred minutes apart in a high-security area of Damascus. The opposition, however, has blamed the government for staging the attacks to make it appear as if Syria would fall into chaos if Mr Assad lost power. A delegation from the Arab League is in Syria to investigate the regime's crackdowns on the protesters and some critics said the attack could deter them from their mission.

At the funeral, the Religious Affairs Minister Abdel Sattar al-Sayyed read a statement from Christian and Muslim religious leaders "denouncing the criminal attacks on Friday … and the murder, destruction and sabotage" as part of a "dangerous plot against Syria". "We call upon the Syrian people to be aware that Syria is being targeted, and affirm that we stand with them in the face of this plot. We reject any sort of extremism represented by terrorist organisations," the statement said. Leading Sunni Muslim cleric Said al-Bouti said he hoped the attacks would lift "the veils on the eyes of the Arab League … so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim".

But the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council said "the Syrian regime alone bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions". Adding to the confusion was what the Muslim Brotherhood said was a bogus website fabricated to resemble its own, which claimed yesterday that the group itself had carried out the attacks and promised more.

Hamas, a Sunni Islamist Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, condemned the bombings and called for a "quick" political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria. Hamas has its headquarters in Damascus, but diplomats say dozens of its operatives have quietly returned to Gaza from Damascus as the group scaled back its presence in Syria and gauged the uncertain future of Assad. Hamas denies such reports.

Secular and ultra-orthodox Jews clash in Beit Shemesh. AFP
Jewish gender segregation row set to escalate
The Australian
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BEIT SHEMESH, ISRAEL: Clashes erupted here between police and several hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews who are campaigning for men and women to be segregated. A rally called by secular Jews for today is expected to bring further trouble.

Yesterday's violence came after police stepped up patrols in Beit Shemesh, 30km east of Jerusalem, following unrest sparked by discrimination against women imposed by a radical fringe of the town's religious Jews. Several demonstrators were taken in for questioning yesterday after police and journalists were roughed up and insulted by ultra-Orthodox men telling them to "clear off". The majority of the town's residents are religious Jews, among them a large and growing ultra-Orthodox community.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a man had been arrested over an assault on Monday on a TV crew filming a sign instructing women to cross the street to avoid walking past a synagogue. Other signs posted in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood instructed women to dress "modestly" in long sleeves and calf-length skirts. The Haaretz newspaper said the cameraman from commercial station Channel Two was thrown to the ground and his sound recordist grabbed by the throat in the attack by ultra-Orthodox men. Other journalists were also attacked and a police car stoned.

Images broadcast on Channel Two last week of an ultra-Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh spitting at a woman led to his arrest on Sunday. He was later freed. The same broadcast featured a religious eight-year-old girl terrified to walk the short distance between her home and school, since she is subject to verbal abuse of ultra-Orthodox men who claim her attire is not sufficiently "modest".

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of gender separation and ultra-orthodox violence towards women.

The violence came after a wave of incidents elsewhere in Israel in which women have been compelled to sit at the back of segregated buses serving ultra-Orthodox areas or get off, despite court rulings that women may sit where they please. Women's rights activists say the ultra-Orthodox — about 10 per cent of the population — have become increasingly radical over gender segregation and are winning concessions that harm women.

Secular activists have organised a demonstration against the ultra-Orthodox coercion and violence, to take place in Beit Shemesh today , and say they expect 10,000 participants.

US talks tough on Iran oil threat
The Australian
Martin Fletcher, The Times, AP, AFP
Friday, December 30, 2011

THE US military responded to an Iranian threat to close the oil artery of the world by declaring last night that such a move would be met by force. "The free flow of goods and services through the Strait of Hormuz is vital to regional and global prosperity," said a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain largely to keep the narrow sea lane open. "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated."

The blunt warning came after a senior Iranian official said that Tehran would close the Strait if the US and Europe proceeded with plans to curtail Iran's oil exports to deter its nuclear program. "If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz," said Mohammad Reza Rahimi, an Iranian vice-president. "(Our) enemies will only abandon their plots when we give them a strong lesson." The threat helped send the price of oil above $100 a barrel on Tuesday night. Admiral Habibollah Sayari, Iran's naval chief, claimed yesterday that shutting the Strait would be "easier than drinking a glass of water". As he spoke, his navy continued 10 days of war games in the nearby Gulf of Oman, a show of force that has included testing torpedoes and mine-laying.

An Iranian official said yesterday that a US aircraft carrier had entered a zone near the Strait of Hormuz being used for the war games. "A US aircraft carrier was spotted inside the manoeuvre zone … by a navy reconnaissance aircraft," Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi, the spokesman for the Iranian exercises, told the official IRNA news agency. The Iranian aircraft took video and photographs of the US vessel, he added. The aircraft carrier was believed to be the USS John C. Stennis, one of the US navy's biggest warships

A sixth of the world's oil production passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which is bordered by Iran. It links the oil and gas-producing states of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Gulf to the Indian Ocean.

Western nations insisted that they would not be deterred from their efforts to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office dismissed Mr Rahimi's threat as rhetoric designed to distract attention from Iranian nuclear ambitions. "We will continue to pursue a dual track strategy of pressure and engagement until Iran convinces the international community that it is not pursuing (nuclear weapons)," it said.

A US State Department spokesman said the threat was "another attempt … to distract attention from the real issue, which is (Iran's) continued non-compliance with its international nuclear obligations". A spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, said: "The EU is considering another set of sanctions against Iran and we continue to do that." France said the Strait was international water and demanded that Iran "respect international law".

The West has stepped up sanctions against Iran since the International Atomic Energy Agency published evidence last month that it was pursuing nuclear weapons, and is preparing for its most direct economic confrontation yet with the Islamic Republic. Britain, France and Germany are pushing for an EU oil embargo; a decision is expected on January 30.

The US Congress has approved — and President Obama will shortly sign — legislation blacklisting any entity doing business with Iran's central bank. That includes oil transactions. Those measures could devastate Iran's already dire economy, as OPEC's second largest exporter earns half its revenues from oil. However, blocking Iranian oil exports could also exacerbate the West's economic woes by raising oil prices. The EU and US have been urging other oil-producing states to increase their output to offset the loss of Iranian oil. A Saudi Oil Ministry official said yesterday that Gulf states were ready to do so, although analysts doubted that they could fully meet the shortfall.

While many analysts believe that Iran's warnings are little more than posturing, they still highlight the delicate nature of the oil market, which moves as much on rhetoric as supply and demand fundamentals. Iran relies on crude sales for about 80 per cent of its public revenues, and sanctions or even a pre-emptive measure by Tehran to withhold its crude from the market would batter its flailing economy. IHS Global Insight analyst Richard Cochrane said in a report yesterday that markets were "jittery over the possibility" of Iran's blockade. But "such action would also damage Iran's economy, and risk retaliation from the US and allies that could further escalate instability in the region".

Hamas calls for ceasefire on Israel
Weekend Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Saturday, December 31, 2011

HAMAS political leader Khaled Meshal has ordered the group's military wing to cease attacks on Israel, according to senior officials of the Fatah organisation cited by the newspaper Haaretz. The sources said Mr Meshal had issued the order a month ago in the wake of talks in Cairo with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also head of the Fatah Party. Israeli officials say they are unaware of any such shift in Hamas policy. However, Hamas has refrained from firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip or launching other attacks for some time.

A change in Mr Meshal's tone has been detectable in recent weeks. Popular protest, as distinct from armed struggle, he said last week, has the power of a tsunami. This, he said, had been demonstrated by recent events in the Arab world, a reference to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Mr Meshal expressed support for the establishment of a unified Palestinian state embracing the West Bank, now the province of the Palestinian Authority; East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel; and the Gaza Strip, which Hamas rules. "Fatah and we have political differences," he said, "but the common ground is agreement on a state within the 1967 borders." Mr Meshal has not renounced Hamas's charter, which calls for the elimination of Israel, and he reserves the right to resort to violence in the future.

The Fatah sources said that Hamas would not officially recognise Israel or accept peace agreements with it. Nor does Hamas intend to stop arming itself. Nevertheless, the reported new policy is a marked divergence from the militant rhetoric and policies Mr Meshal has adopted until now and appears to represent a significant shift in strategy.

Other militant groups in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, have not endorsed Mr Meshal's position and they continue to send rockets into Israel periodically, although far less than in the past. This is presumed to be because Hamas is reining them in. The local Hamas leadership in Gaza, which frequently differs with Mr Meshal, expressed surprise at his new position and reiterated that the only way to liberate the occupied lands was through armed struggle.

The Hamas interior minister in Gaza, Fathi Hamad, said the group's internal leadership — which is the Gaza leadership, as distinct from the political leadership, based in Damascus — would not necessarily abide by Mr Meshal's new policy. However, he said that the decision to resort to a popular struggle was made by the Hamas advisory body, the Shura Council, on which all senior members of the organisation sit.

Israel has given no indication that its policy towards Hamas is likely to change. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins the Palestinian government.


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